(Not long ago, A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps purchased a large box containing over 75 vintage science fiction, crime, and adventure paperbacks. He is reading all of them. This is book number 45.)
The book's from 1957. The cover's from 1976. The style, by an uncredited artist, is late-pulp but it's the hair that really announces the years between. There's little chance that a straight-arrow cop like Vanishing Ladies' protagonist Detective Philip Colby would be wearing his hair like that in the '50s. It's a post-Serpico treatment of a pre-Camelot man. The book has its divisions, too. Written in 1957 by Evan Hunter, a.k.a. Ed McBain, a.k.a. Salvatore Albert Lombino (that's the one on his birth certificate), a.k.a. a bunch of other cool names like "Curt Cannon," it finds the writer still coming into his own. Hunter–to stick to his official adopted name–had found success with his 1954 novel The Blackboard Jungle and was already starting to write his 87th Precinct series under the Ed McBain pseudonym, a series he'd keep writing until his 2005 death. This book, released under the name "Richard Marsten," clearly tries to reach the same audience as the 87th Precinct books, already familiar to longtime readers of this column, but with some added noir sleaze and tough guy action. In fact, Vanishing Ladies has a lot in common with that series. Colby works for the 23rd Precinct in an unnamed city and travels across the river to another unnamed state, but it's easy to fill in the blanks as New York and New Jersey. But where the 87th Precinct books take a procedural approach to police work with an emphasis on the gritty details, Vanishing Ladies is hardboiled crime fiction first, a mystery second, and never quite satisfying as either. That isn't to say it's bad, just a little ungainly. Framed as a deposition given by Colby (and, briefly, a second deposition given by another cop) after the events of the novel have already taken place, Vanishing Ladies makes good on its title pretty quickly. With some time off on his hands, Colby decides to vacation with his fiancée Ann, a woman with
wide brown eyes, and a good figure even though she's tall. You meet a a lot of tall girls who look like telephone poles. Ann's not that way.
(Ann's one of a few women described, lovingly, as "big." Try getting away with that now.) It's an interesting sort of vacation, one predicated on it not being that kind of vacation. For one, Ann still lives with her widowed father, who's only grudgingly approved the trip. Apparently Colby isn't interested in it being that kind of vacation either, or at least has resigned himself to a chaste weekend. "She rested her head on my shoulder," he recalls
and pulled her legs up under her. I knew she was almost out because her skirt had pulled back over her knees during the operation and she hadn't bothered to shove it back down again.
She's tired, by the way, because they've just been harassed by the police in the small town of Sullivan's Corners. Pulled over for a speeding ticket, Colby gets hassled for carrying a gun–this in spite of the fact that he also carries a badge–and the couple spends several hours in a courthouse waiting for Colby's superior officer to confirm his identity. Then it's off to the world's worst motel. (Named, simply, "MOTEL.") Well, scratch that: It's not the world's worst motel as long as you don't mind sharing it with a bunch of prostitutes and possibly spending the weekend looking for your kidnapped bride-to-be. That's the problem Colby spends the rest of the book tackling, with plenty of obstacles thrown in his way. After he and a sleeping Ann check into separate cabins, which requires Colby to slip her out her dress, Colby decides to hit the motel's sole shower and returns to find his room occupied by the world's pushiest underage hooker. She's a redhead with "garish" make-up and wearing a dress so low cut "that her small breasts in their tight brassiere were bunched together an uplifted like crowded passengers in an ascending balloon." (Should I mention at this point that Hunter's a pretty terrific, or at least vivid, writer even when writing sub-terrific books?) After spending a chapter fending off her advances, Colby starts looking for answers, and here's where the book started lose me. I liked the notion of a grown-up, apparently chaste couple descending from the city into a backwoods of vice and corruption, but Colby's pursuit of answers feels extremely protracted. And when Colby's fellow cop Anthony Mitchell shows up to take over the book, that feeling gets even more intense. Still, Mitchell provides a wonderful, completely irrelevant but highly welcome reverie about growing up in the city that alone makes the book worthwhile. It's too long to reproduce in full, but here's a sample:
In the summer, too, you sit on the front stoop with the other kids, and the city has its own song at night, especially on a summer night when the heat has baked into the street and the sidewalk and the brick walls of the tenements and a cool breeze blows in over the river. You can hear the city's song very clearly on a summer night. You can hear the horns, and the tugs, and the voices, and the people. You can hear the sound around you like the sound of mingled voices at a public beach, hovering on the air, indistinct, unintelligible, and beneath that the whisper of your friends beside you on the stoop, and the cool comfort of a cup of ices clenched in your fist, and the vast exchange of sex and religion and philosophy.
I got the feeling, reading Vanishing Ladies that Hunter missed the city almost as much as Mitchell. Maybe that's why he pretty much stayed there, in or around his 87th precinct, for the next few decades. I can't blame him. On his home turf he's adept at capturing the blight and beauty of the big city. Here he seems a little lost. But you can't fault a guy for wanting a vacation now and then, can you?
Want to read past Box Of Paperbacks Book Club entries? All previous installments of The Box Of Paperbacks Book Club are archived here.
Next: The Man From Planet X: #1 The She-Beast by Hunter Adams
"The spaceship came down during the night on Panther Mountain in the Catskills–a spinning, shimmering, iridescent globe of light observed only by a drunk who had wandered away from the Loch Loon resort hotel, and by a teenager who was busy peeling his girlfriend's panties off in the back seat of his high-strung '70 Dodge Charger."
Then: Slan by A.E. van Voght
"His mother's hand felt cold, clutching his."