100 Mysteries You Should Die Before You Read, #003
Knave of Hearts, as by Dell Shannon (1962)
“Dell Shannon” was the principal pseudonym of Barbara Linington (left), who also wrote as Elizabeth Linington, Egan O’Neill, Anne Blaisdell, and Lesley Egan. Many early hardcover editions of her books made much of the fact that she was a proud member of the John Birch Society, which Wikipedia describes as “radical right-wing” and “a fringe element of the conservative movement” which was actually denounced by William F. Buckley as being “far removed from common sense”. In my opinion, Ms. Linington was a ghastly racist whose political views were a little to the right of Attila the Hun and who used her books as a vehicle for her far-right politics. She was also known as the “Queen of the Procedurals” — I am unable to determine who gave her this title, or precisely why, but it seems to be based on the fact that she was the most prolific female writer working in the genre of the police procedural mystery novel. My contention will be that she merely appropriated the form without understanding its roots, but that will be seen below.
This is the fourth volume in a series documenting the adventures of Lieutenant Luis Mendoza of the LA police department. The first edition is from William Morrow in 1962; first UK edition appears to be from Oldbourne, 1963. A number of paperback editions and book club editions exist. It is ordinarily my practice to display the edition which I have in my hands but the entire internet doesn’t appear to contain a photograph of the 1984 paperback from Mysterious Press; my edition has a tasteful and vaguely Art Deco cover that is part of a uniform edition of a handful of Shannon’s novels. As a placeholder I have given you an image of the first edition but I’ve allowed pride of place to the thin-lipped and censorious face of the author herself, above.
About this book:
Standard spoiler warning: What you are about to read is likely to discuss in explicit terms the solution to a murder mystery. Since I hope to persuade you to not read it due to its general awfulness, the point may well be moot, but I thought I’d make it.
Lieutenant Luis Mendoza leads a team of detectives working in the Los Angeles homicide squad of 1962. The story begins with a scene where he breaks up with his girlfriend, beautiful red-headed Alison Weir, who owns and runs a charm school. We soon learn that although the police made an excellent case against Allan Haines for the rape and murder of Mary Ellen Wood, and he was tried and executed, his alibi witness came forward some months later and exonerated him. And since the newspapers are leading an outcry against this error, the detectives must work extra-hard to find the killer.
We learn a little bit about the personal lives of some of the team of detectives as they plod through a routine which is hinted at, but not really described in detail — too boring, one supposes. Mendoza is famous for his poker-playing, his inherited millions, his Abyssinian cats, his beautiful wardrobe, his Facel-Vega sports car and his hunches about how to solve murder cases; this last is a good thing since he seems to do very little actual work. After dithering around for most of the novel getting nowhere, an out-of-town policeman walks in and hands them the solution to the identity of the real rapist/murderer, who is just about to murder, you guessed it, Alison Weir. In what is meant to be an exciting finish, Mendoza ruins his sports car in the process of racing to the crime scene to save her in the nick of time and, one supposes, reconcile with her, since the many further books in the series detail their idyllic married life.
This book was nominated for an Edgar award for Best Novel. As you will soon discover, I suspect this may have been in a parallel universe.
Why is this so awful?
The police procedural is a sub-genre of the mystery novel that consists primarily of a group of police officers who work as a team, doing everything that they do in order to solve crimes. We see good officers and bad officers doing both smart and stupid things, following hot leads and trails that peter out. The officers’ work is never done and they are usually working on multiple cases at the same time; occasionally these cases are less than serious. Sometimes cases remain unsolved. Most such novels describe a number of cases that are in various stages of closure. This is meant to give the reader the flavour of what police work is really like. The best-known practitioner of this school is Ed McBain, whose many novels of the 87th Precinct in a fictional city not unlike NYC have delighted generations of readers.
This novel and its companions in the series are meant to be procedurals, and the author as noted above is known as the Queen of the Procedurals (for some reason, procedurals are very, very rarely written by women or for them, it seems). In fact, these novels are more like romances than procedurals. The author appears to know virtually nothing about how police officers actually behave or work in real life — but then, as soon becomes clear, she appears to know virtually nothing about how human beings actually behave in real life, so this ignorance of procedure is unsurprising. Frankly, it seems as though at some point many years ago, she spent a couple of days hanging around a police station, listening credulously to bullshitters telling her exaggerated tales of their own excellence, and parlayed that into a long-term career.
What we are presented with, in fact, is a right-wing nitwit’s fantasy about how police should work, unsullied by little things like the rules of court, evidence, and common sense. I realize that it is usually an error to ascribe the social values of 2013 to a novel published in 1962, but the attitudes and mores displayed here as if they were normal and sensible are so disgusting and so disgraceful, so anti-law, that I cannot believe that the citizens of 1962 would not have risen up and replaced their police force to a man had they acted or thought like this.
For instance, an early example from Chapter 5 (page 66 in my edition). The hero — the hero! — says:
“There’ve been thirty-odd cases of rape and attempted rape through headquarters this eighteen months, and in all but seven or eight of them the woman was at least partly to blame, for voluntarily putting herself in danger. And I’m not counting the statutory cases, where it’s legally rape because the girl’s under age — I mean the real thing, sex by force. Thirteen of those cases ended in homicide. Of those thirteen women, six can be called — mmh — respectable. The others had asked for it, just like those where it didn’t end in murder — hanging around bars alone, picking up strangers, or they lived or worked or visited in the back alleys of bad districts.”
The corollary, of course, is that because the rapist in this particular case is not a badly-dressed drooling degenerate, or a Negro — the two are pretty much equivalent to this author in later cases — the police are baffled and the public is outraged. Later on (page 75), Mendoza says, in conversation with his second-in-command, “… can any man say there hasn’t been a time he didn’t have the impulse to violence with a woman — to let her know he’s a male creature? Or with some men, to repay her for being female? Tell the truth to yourself if not to me.” Sergeant Hackett replies, “Like they say, touché. It’s a thing in us, if we’re men at all.” The incredible part is that of course this is being written by a woman about an imaginary police officer, whose job seems not to be to serve and protect but rather to sit around in his office and make moral judgments. Wikipedia and other sources are silent as to whether Linington ever married or had children or anything approaching a relationship with a normal human, but I’m suspecting not. Nor, I suspect, was she ever the victim of a crime that she felt to be “her fault”.
The police procedure in this novel is nearly non-existent. Unlike the classic procedural, the entire police force seems to work on a single case here. Officers apparently decide what to do by divine inspiration and then go and do it — very rarely are they actually directed, they are merely said to be directed. It seems as though the author feels as though the routines of police work are far too boring to be dwelt upon, even though this is actually the basis of the procedural. The police specifically deprecate “head doctors” as having useless opinions in cases like these. My instinct is to suggest that this is because any psychiatrist worth his salt would lock up half these policemen as being misogynistic psychos after a few minutes of conversation. (Immediately after opining that head doctors are useless, Mendoza muses about the blonde with whom he apparently had casual sex the night before. She is nameless. “A silly female. Just, in effect, a female — compliant — and obtuse. Nobody to talk to, to enjoy being with, just for herself. You might say, on a par with the waitress who fetched you a meal when you were hungry. That kind of thing.” One wonders why the female readers of 1962 did not rise up en masse and insert these volumes into the author’s vagina sideways.) And in fact, the boring police work is depicted as being just as useless as actually, you know, bothering to research it for the edification of the reader. Instead, Mendoza is constantly said to have “instincts” that have led him to promotion over his fellows. And the out-of-town police officer who comes in while on vacation in LA and identifies the killer does so because he had a “feeling” that this individual killed a girl in his home town. How can someone be Queen of the Procedurals who doesn’t know much about police work and doesn’t think it’s worthwhile anyway? Bah, it’s all rubbish. These police officers threaten reporters with violence for reporting the truth and having an anti-police attitude — Mendoza punches one and there are no consequences. They bemoan the interference of the ignorant public and the counterproductive justice system, all of whom collude to prevent the police from administering the rough justice that they alone know how to dish out, to anyone whom they decide is guilty. And these men are the HEROES of this novel.
The other disgraceful part of this novel is the author’s attitude towards her fellow human beings. And here, I have to say, she constantly works the same trick. Essentially she selects a minority whom she dislikes — and believe me, that’s all of them, because this lady only likes upper-class well-spoken well-dressed white people who are God-fearing, obedient and Republican — and creates a character who is NOT as bad as she implies the rest are. Mendoza, for instance, is probably Mexican (his internal monologue appears to imply that his grandmother pretends to be descended from the pure-blooded Castilian settlers of long ago, in order to raise her social class) but he is wealthy, well-dressed, a professional, etc. And so when other characters imply that he is a “dirty Mex”, because this is a perfectly natural attitude for a member of the white middle-class hoi polloi, Mendoza allows himself to reflect on how misguided they are. Similarly, in later books in this series, there is a kind, sensible, family man who is, as they were called back then, a Negro police officer. This gentleman doesn’t raise a finger to stop his fellow officers from bullying and occasionally beating other Negroes, and occasionally allows himself a God-fearing regret that they don’t know better than to have too many children, but he himself is the kind of Negro whom whites should respect and pat on his woolly little head. Grr. Certain types of people are irredeemable; I think the author is incapable of believing that a Communist or a homosexual could ever be a “good person”, and all such in her books have metaphorical horns and tails. The lower classes are all lazy scum who breed too frequently all except the occasional one who works her way out of poverty by dint of keeping her skirts long and her knees together and her nose to the grindstone. (Alison Weir’s comments about the girls from whom she takes money to teach them manners are absolutely outrageous. She seems to believe that, without her gentling influence, they would all be makeup-caked whores teetering around on four-inch heels having sex with anyone who asked.)
There’s a moment in this novel that made my blood boil. Chapter 14, page 193 in my edition, Mendoza is having a difficult time solving the case by intuition, and police work isn’t helping, so he decides to go out and get drunk at lunch. Yes, seriously. He goes to a restaurant where he is known, and a kindly black waiter who notes that he’s drinking much more than usual and not touching his food generously offers to make him food more to his taste, and suggests that he cut back on the drinking. To which Mendoza replies, and I quote, “Hell and damnation … are you trying to wet-nurse me, boy? If I don’t get served here, there’s a bar three doors down.” Boy, indeed. What a disgrace to the badge.
Of particular note in this volume is the author’s attitude towards women — this book is, in a sense, about women, because the “psycho killer” at the heart of it all has been driven off the deep end by finding out that the woman he loves is a slut. (It’s hard to say exactly why, but I suspect she indicates that she is willing to have sex before marriage with him, so he strangles her and all other women whom he decides are sluts.) One character, the slatternly Madge Parrott, is a case in point. Her best friend and fellow slut — sorry, waitress of easy virtue/roommate — was killed by the killer because she was willing to have sex with him, it seems. They used to laugh at him for being unsophisticated and thinking that they were virgins. Madge is entirely willing to cooperate with the police, of course, but makes no bones that she would fuck the bejeezus out of Mendoza or any other nice guy if it got her a wedding ring and a ticket out of waitress-dom. In the meantime she will insist upon being plied with daiquiris before she gives out information, and you know that’s the sign of a bad girl. A middle-aged women who is driven by economic necessity to rent rooms in her house is presented as a fool. There are no women police officers in the homicide squad, of course. (Later in the series one is added and it turns out that the men are too timid to suggest that she type their reports, which is precisely why she’s there. In fact, she longs to BE their secretary and is sad that they reject her typing skills.)
And Alison herself rejects most ordinary men because she has been spoiled by the ultra-macho Mendoza; it’s only when she decides to subordinate her red-headed wilfulness to his masculine superiority that he can save her life and end the book. In the meantime, she accepts a date with a polite nonentity (the killer, of course) because she is single, and heaven forbid she should stay home on a Saturday night alone. So she spends a weeknight redoing her nails in copper to match her new skirt, so as to please a man about whom she doesn’t care a scrap. The book is full of such nonsense.
Other than ridiculous characterization, a complete ignorance of police procedure and a plot that is based on coincidence, the other dire aspect of this novel is the writing style. And here, other than a reliance upon cliches about race, class and gender that are horrific to the modern eye, there are two main issues that grate tremendously upon the reader’s ear.
The first is that Mendoza, in order to give him a character beyond the trappings of his money, cars, cats and lack of integrity, constantly speaks in Spanish words and phrases. This rather feels, to quote Dashiell Hammett describing Philo Vance, “like a high-school girl who had been studying the foreign words and phrases in the back of her dictionary.” It is constant and unrelenting, and I found it very hard to take. At the end of the novel, when Mendoza is racing across town insanely in order to save Alison from first the fate worse than death and then death, he seems to lose the ability to speak English at all. This book is putatively written for an English-speaking reader, and much like Dorothy L. Sayers including a dozen pages entirely in French with no translation in Clouds of Witness and expecting the reader to get the point, it is incredibly annoying. I don’t know what the Spanish is for “Go fuck yourself, you bigoted hag,” but I would have liked to scream it into the writer’s ear.
My long-time loathing of Linington’s writing began in my early teens when I became aware of a stylistic tic of hers that drove me crazy. It’s connected with the word “the”, misused in place of “a” or “an”. She puts this idiosyncratic use of the word into the mouths of all sorts of different characters as if it were common parlance for everyone, and it drives me crazy. For instance, and I found this almost by opening the book at random: “… the most respectable high-minded women, nine times out of ten they’ll feel the animal attraction to the big male brute, never mind if he’s the plumber or the garage mechanic or whatever …” (page 69 of my edition). What’s wrong with “an animal attraction to a big male brute”, etc., just like the rest of the world says it? And it’s so constant and consistent, in all her novels regardless of the pseudonym she’s using, that it’s like a signature. For me, it’s like a sore tooth that she keeps biting in my mouth.
It is astonishing to me at this remove that this writer was so popular in the 60s that she published dozens of novels under a handful of names. But I take a great deal of pleasure in the fact that her work is almost completely out of print today, mostly because she is racist, sexist, misogynist, a terrible prose stylist and completely ignorant of the requirements of the form in which she was working. I hope I have persuaded you to avoid her work completely in the future.
Notes For the Collector:
Abebooks.com offers an inscribed and signed 1st edition from a UK bookseller for the unusual price of $102.48. A Good first in jacket will set you back as much as $40 or $50, and a reading copy in paperback might cost you $5. There are no noteworthy editions, to my mind, and even the paperbacks do not have the cheerful vulgarity that marked so many of their fellows during this period. Many, many book club editions exist — she was a profilic contributor to their lists — and since these editions are nearly worthless, you should have to pay nearly nothing for them. If you truly feel you must read these books, I recommend you pay as little as possible for them.
As I have commented elsewhere, good books by good writers hold their value and even increase. Therefore, on that logical basis, someone would have to pay me to accept a copy of this book. I seem to have paid $2.50 for mine, which means I’ve wasted $2.50 that no one will ever give me back.