Angel in Black
Published by New American Library
352 pages, 2001
Tender Is LeVine
by Andrew Bergman
Published by St. Martin's Minotaur
288 pages, 2001
Reviewed by J. Kingston Pierce
Unsolved murders can be incessantly -- if gruesomely -- fascinating. It's been more than 110 years, for instance, since Jack the Ripper ceased disemboweling prostitutes in London's East End slums, yet movies and books (including Anne Perry's latest mystery, The Whitechapel Conspiracy) continue to be inspired by that reign of terror. Likewise, although we're approaching (on August 4) the 109th anniversary of the ax murders that claimed Lizzie Borden's father and stepmother in Fall River, Massachusetts, debate rages even today over whether the schoolteacher committed the savage acts for which she was tried, but later acquitted, and the case still stimulates the imagination of authors such as Evan Hunter (Lizzie, 1984) and Walter Satterthwait (whose 1989 book, Miss Lizzie, found the alleged murderess probing a neighbor's own demise). Less familiar but of a similar vintage were what may have been America's first serial killings in Austin, Texas. Attributed to unidentified "Servant Girl Annihilators," those 1885 slayings claimed seven women and one man, most of them black domestics in wealthy white households, and provided the seed from which grew author Steven Saylor's captivating stand-alone suspenser, last year's A Twist at the End (recently republished in Britain as Honour the Dead). The tale posits short-story writer O. Henry -- who actually lived in Austin in 1885 under his real name, William Sidney Porter -- uncovering the assassin's identity.
Equally inspiring to fictionists has been the brutal 1947 murder in Los Angeles of Elizabeth Short, better known to history as "the Black Dahlia." A 22-year-old unemployed waitress and wannabe actress, originally from tiny Medford, Massachusetts, Short was reportedly gorgeous -- raven-tressed with porcelain-white skin, 5-foot-5, 115 pounds, a woman fond of expensive clothing, favoring black attire. Some sources cast her as promiscuous and opportunistic, while others portray her as a naïve young woman who frequently ran with a bad crowd, inviting trouble. And trouble certainly found her. On the morning of January 15, 1947, a passerby spotted Beth Short's naked corpse -- bruised, beaten, severed in half and drained of blood -- in a weed-ridden lot not far from Hollywood. Despite intense (if often salacious) newspaper coverage and an investigation by the LAPD's foremost homicide detective of the time, Harry "The Hat" Hansen (nicknamed for his dapper taste in fedoras), the case petered out after a few weeks for wont of valuable leads. However, the cops never actually closed their books on Short's butchering, and in the more than half a century since, the case has spawned a number of true-crime studies, several movie treatments, a thorough and thought-provoking Web site, a new jazz CD from Bob Belden (titled, naturally, Black Dahlia) and James Ellroy's first best-selling work, The Black Dahlia (1987).
Prolific "true-crime novelist" Max Allan Collins says he was planning his own Black Dahlia book when Ellroy "got the jump on me." But more than a decade later, he returns to that case in Angel in Black, his 11th story featuring Nathan Heller, the smart-aleck but dogged Chicago private eye who has already "solved" some of the most sensational crimes of the 20th century, from the 1947 assassination of Las Vegas mobster Benjamin "Bugsy" Siegel (Neon Mirage, 1988) to the 1932 kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby (Stolen Away, 1991) and the 1937 disappearance of famed aviatrix Amelia Earhart (Flying Blind, 1998). The Short mystery bears all the ingredients of an ideal Heller tale: a beautiful woman in jeopardy; police corruption; quirky real-life characters, some of them very familiar; and enough loose ends to let Collins artfully tie his P.I. into the action, leading him to solve the case in a way that seems as innovative as it is plausible. And Angel in Black doesn't disappoint, starting out strong and never taking a breath until a breathtaking conclusion that makes you want to read everything else you can find about the Dahlia investigation. If Angel isn't nominated for some sort of crime fiction commendation -- maybe even a coveted Edgar Award -- I'll eat this review.
"Detectives do not believe in coincidence," Heller asserts as this yarn begins to unwind. "Some of us believe in fate, a few of us believe in God; but none of us believe in coincidence..." So when the gumshoe (who is in Los Angeles both on an extended honeymoon and to establish a partnership with one of that sunny burg's top P.I.s) arrives at the lot where Beth Short's body has been dumped -- ahead of the cops and in company with a scoop-hungry reporter from the LA Examiner -- he doesn't need any crystal ball to see that his future is as a prime suspect in this affair. After all, not only did Heller have a history with the ill-fated Ms. Short (he'd spent at least one rather fuzzy night with her back in Chicago), but, he recalls, "she had tried to hit me up for abortion money less than a week ago. A child belonging to me was probably still inside her, right now, a tiny Heller every bit as dead as she was."
And things only get more complicated after that. Heller conceals his relationship with the deceased from both the police and the press, figuring that the best way to stay out of jail is to stay involved with the case. ("If I could lend my skills to the investigation, help bring it to a quick resolution," he reasons, "I could clear myself before I needed clearing, before anybody had even tumbled to my connection to the girl.") He also keeps his personal interest in this incident a secret from his new wife, Peggy, another aspiring actress (and Beth Short lookalike!) who has just told Heller that she, too, is pregnant. Trying to stay one giant step ahead of every other bloodhound on the trail, Heller interviews most of the principal real-life players in the Dahlia drama, as well as other familiar figures from the time, including mobster Mickey Cohen and the very colorfully portrayed actor/director Orson Welles (who's worried that he may have murdered Short in the heat of some schizophrenic fit). Adding to this story's verisimilitude, author Collins even interjects his P.I. into what readers well acquainted with the Dahlia probe will recognize as turning points in the historical case. For example, in chapter eight, when Heller is coerced into calling Beth Short's mother on behalf of the Examiner and breaking to her the news of her daughter's demise -- a yellow-journalistic trick designed to elicit quotable material for the next day's paper -- he's taking on a role that originally went to unfortunate rewrite man Wain Sutton.
In addition, Collins links Angel in Black to a pair of his own earlier fictional confections: "The Strawberry Teardrop" (1984), a short story collected in Dying in the Post-War World, and Butcher's Dozen (1988), one of Collins' four thrillers starring former "Untouchable" Eliot Ness. Perceiving similarities between the Dahlia execution and Cleveland's "Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run" torso slayings (1935-38), which Ness investigated during his time as Cleveland's safety director, Heller helps convince the LAPD to call in Ness as a consultant on the Short murder. This leads to a few unexpected twists in Heller's inquiry, though Collins integrates them expertly into the known facts of the Dahlia case. The author also loops Ness into some of his novel's most memorable scenes, including one in which Heller and Ness grill the former Mad Butcher, aka Lloyd Watterson, who has escaped a mental institution and taken employment with an LA doctor. Tied up in an office chair, Watterson pleads with Ness to believe that he's innocent in the Black Dahlia affair:
"No! I didn't do that crime -- you know it didn't fit my ... what do you call it? ... modus operandi!"
Such surrealism -- "Eliot Ness and the Mad Butcher of Kingsbury Run debating the finer points of mass murder" -- may stretch the limits of credulity, but it is well in keeping with the general bizarreness of the Dahlia case, from which Collins eventually extrapolates his own not-unreasonable solution.
Unlike Ellroy's The Black Dahlia, which did a far better job of capturing the noirish mood of this case than it did the nuances of the police investigation, Angel puts you front-and-center as the press capitalizes on the killing's sexual theme and the LAPD struggles to sift grains of truth from a landslide of phony confessions. The literary resurrection of Harry "The Hat" and his corrupt colleague, Sergeant Finis "Fat Ass" Brown, are most welcome, even if they do make you pine hard for the old days of quirky cops. And Collins does a fine job here of expanding -- and darkening -- Nate Heller's character, as the randy detective is forced to confront the possibility that his ambitious new spouse intends to abort their first child. Special commendations go to Collins for his use of the LA backdrop -- the glitzy Sunset Strip, the elegant Bradbury Building (a fixture in innumerable period TV detective shows, including the author's favorite, City of Angels) and the chic restaurant La Rue, where Heller bumps into Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall on their way to the john ("Nice couple. Glad somebody was happily married.").
Regrettably, it may be some while before we find our hero back in Chandler country. As Heller tells Examiner City Editor Jim Richardson in the last chapter, there's "[s]omething about this town -- it's a turd dragged through glitter, all nice and shiny, but Jim, it's still shit. I'm ready to go back to Chicago -- it's shit, too, but it doesn't pretend to be anything else."
Just as straightforward in its intent is Tender Is LeVine, the first period detective caper from screenwriter/director Andrew Bergman in a quarter of a century. Where Angel in Black is grim-edged and menacing, Tender is a witty romp through Manhattan, Havana and the nascent gambling mecca of Las Vegas. Think of it as Black Mask meets It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
After being introduced in The Big Kiss-off of 1944 (1974) and then encoring in Hollywood and LeVine (1975) -- books that enjoyed a cultish following -- the beleaguered Jewish private eye Jack LeVine seemed to drop off the face of the planet. Turns out he'd just tumbled into a fathomless well of depression. As he recalls in this new novel's prologue:
I had come through a very rough period: long, ragged months of self-doubt and shallow, anxious sleep. This malaise had been building for years, but I had always managed to jolly or work it away. Then in March of 1948 -- the nineteenth, to be exact -- my old man died, nice and easy, listening to Jack Benny on the radio. The last human voice he heard on this earth belonged to Dennis Day. I took it pretty hard, for all the reasons. No longer a father's son, I started sizing up my adulthood: divorced, childless, drifting through middle age with a P.I.'s license and an expanding waistline. In eight years, I'd be fifty; in sixteen years .... The math was not reassuring. I couldn't get a comfortable fix on mortality and began a period of retreat, turning down cases, choosing instead to stare out my office window or just stay home in Sunnyside, listening to ball games and eating western omelets. ... It was depression, pure and simple. The case of the depressed dick.
But a redecorated office and a new investigation have LeVine back on top in Tender. The year is 1950, and Fritz Stern, a German-born violinist with the NBC (Radio) Symphony Orchestra, brings the detective allegations that his company's conductor -- the legendary octogenarian, Arturo Toscanini -- has been kidnapped and replaced by an exact double. Outlandish, of course. Or is it? LeVine isn't convinced until Stern turns up dead and then Sidney Aaron, an NBC vice president, confirms that the maestro was snatched while on a promotional tour through Sun Valley, Idaho, and is being ransomed for $3 million. But how much does NBC really want Toscanini back? And why are mobsters Meyer Lansky and Lucky Luciano interested in the kidnapping? With Stern's curvaceous college-student daughter, Barbara, in tow (and sharing his bed -- the lucky bastard), LeVine sets off to find out, leaving a scattering of corpses and a generous helping of cheeky dialogue in his wake. If you've longed for another LeVine outing, or are just looking for a literary escape this summer, Bergman's latest yarn is just the ticket.
As the story goes, Bergman hadn't intended to revisit Jack LeVine. After penning the script for the movie Blazing Saddles (1974), he'd settled into a prosperous career of moviemaking, turning out comedic films such as Honeymoon in Vegas and Striptease (the latter based on Carl Hiaasen's 1993 novel). But a devoted and discriminating crime fiction fan -- former U.S. President Bill Clinton -- coaxed him to revive his wisecracking shamus. "Clinton was a big fan of Honeymoon in Vegas," Bergman was quoted as telling a New Jersey newspaper recently, "so I sent him a flying Elvis [Presley] hat and an album from the film. He writes back, 'Thanks, but I wished you'd written a dozen more LeVine books.'"
We'll have to see whether Bergman has another dozen LeVines up his sleeve. I'm just pleased to see a single new entry in the series after so long. Like its predecessors, Tender Is LeVine takes the classic American detective story and turns it on its ear. Then twirls it around for a good, hearty laugh. Hard-core hard-boiled enthusiasts will hate it. But, not surprisingly, Clinton enjoyed the results. "I love your new LeVine," he writes in a blurb featured prominently on this book's jacket. Coming from the ex-Leader of the Free World, whose previous enthusiasm for the works of Michael Connelly, Dennis Lehane and others catapulted them onto bestseller lists, such praise can't help but encourage Bergman to think twice about letting LeVine go another 26 years in silence. | May 2001
J. Kingston Pierce is the crime fiction editor of January Magazine.