Friday, my kids spent the night with my parents. My leggy wife and I had a few hours of free time and decided to spend it on a visit to one of the world’s greatest places – America’s Thrift Store in Tillmans Corner, Alabama. For the cheapskate book lover, it’s hard to beat – they have an entire wall of books. All paperbacks are $1 and all hardcovers are $1.50.
After searching the stock, I found three – Brett Halliday’s Murder Spins the Wheel, John Lutz’s Death by Jury, and Robert Graysmith’s The Sleeping Lady. Those three books, my library books, and all of my other recent orders ought to keep me off the streets during the holidays.
Searching for Low-Rent Thrills
A few years ago, I finished the last of Ralph Dennis’ Hardman series. Dennis was an Atlanta writer whose Hardman series (published from 1974-77) is one of the unappreciated gems of men’s adventure books. In that series, Dennis accomplished the seemingly-easy – but very rare – feat of crafting a readable, well-written series of crime novels. Ever since I finished the Hardman books, I’ve been looking for a similar series. So far, I haven’t come close to finding anything that measures up.
Over the years, I’ve read some nice things about the Mike Shayne series of detective novels. Just the other day, I was thumbing Bill Pronzini and Marcia Muller’s 1001 Midnights and I remembered that the Shayne novels had been on my to-read list. Finding Murder Spins the Wall seemed like a message from the literary gods that the time was right.
(Finally) About the Book
Brett Halliday was the pen name of a number of different authors. According to online sources, Davis Dresser stopped writing the Mike Shayne series around 1958 and turned it over to various ghost writers including Ryerson Johnson and Robert Terrall. This is my long-winded way of stating that I don’t know who wrote Murder Spins the Wheel.
The novel opens well, with a “Slam. Bang.” sequence in which three lowlives attempt a strong arm robbery of $200,000 from a Miami bookmaker named Harry Bass. Predictably, things don’t go as planned and Mike Shayne comes in to try to unravel the mess. Also predictably, he uncovers a complex plot involving fixed football games, fixed horse races, heroin, the mob, and lots of beautiful women (in short, all of the things guys like).
Straight from the Mold
After the start, the pace never slows. The story careens from one sex- and action-filled sequence to the next. The reader never catches his or her breath. The novel seems to be a mid-60s period piece, all of the characters drink and smoke. Also, the women are all young and sexy. Here’s a description of Harry Bass’ much-younger “secretary, ” Theo Moore –
“Harry had been married twice, and his second divorce had just become final. He had always had good taste in women, and on the evidence it seemed to be getting even better. She was blonde, probably in her late twenties, though Shayne was no longer much of a judge of women’s ages. She was wearing horn-rimmed glasses. A pencil with a large eraser was stuck in her hair and a light cashmere sweater was thrown carelessly over her shoulders. All Harry’s women had been sexy looking. She was no exception, but she looked interested and intelligent. That was new” (p. 18).
The passage above is typical of how Murder Spins the Wheel treats its female characters – for the most part, they are peripheral to the story. Moreover, to the extent that women are involved, it is through the male characters’ reactions to the women’s sexuality. Of course, this is standard procedure in the men’s adventure genre.
More interesting, at least two me, is the way the author develops the Vince Donahue character. Donahue is a heroin-abusing playboy who appears to be the prime mover behind all of the nefarious plots. Shayne finds a cocktail waitress Donahue jilted; she explains his appeal –
“With most people, it’s easy to get into things and hell to get out. But Vince always manages to get out just as easily as he gets in. Nothing bad ever seems to happen to him. Maybe going to jail won’t work. I guess it doesn’t, usually. But it would get him away from Miami Beach before the roof caves in. He’s – terribly handsome, Mr. Shayne. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen him, but he’s one of the best-looking people. The way he moves. … He’s proud of his teeth. He had caps put on last year and they’re absolutely perfect. The way he looks is the only real thing he’s ever had. And I can see how it’s going to end – with one person holding him and another hitting him in the face with brass knuckles” (pp. 50-51).
Unfortunately, the book is far from perfect. Aside from the cliches, one consistent problem is that it’s difficult to follow the action sequences. The author tries to describe the action from a variety of perspectives, which confuses the reader, making him or her work too hard to understand what is happening. A simpler description – perhaps explaining things from Shayne’s perspective – would have worked better.
The Icing Without the Cake
So far, I’d give Murder Spins the Wheel a 6 out of 10. For what it is, the book isn’t bad. It has all of the elements that you would hope to find in a men’s-adventure novel. But, it doesn’t have the little extras that separate decent novels from good novels; the book needs better character development and the little bits of local color that would lift it to the next level.
The first 95 pages of Murder Spins the Wheel are sort of like the icing without the cake – the glitz is there, but the substance could be better. So far, this one’s worth reading, but not worth making the effort to seek out.