|US 1st edition (Harper & Bros., 1957)|
For some reason I have been reading a slew of the books that were reprinted as part of Garland Press’ Fifty Classics of Crime Fiction series. There were two sets of these books totaling one hundred examples of what in the estimation of Jacques Barzun and Wendell Taylor (authors of the seminal detective fiction annotated bibliography A Catalog of Crime) are superlative examples of the genre. Most of the time, especially those in the first set which includes books published between 1900-1950, I have been very pleased with the choices. But lately I’ve been sampling some from the second set spanning 1950 – 1975 and I have to admit great disappointment. Yesterday I posted an essay on the uneven but entertaining novel The Body in the Beck included in this second set of fifty “classics”. Today I regret I have found one that is simply mediocre.
The Pub Crawler (1956) is a perfect example of a police procedural that fails to excite. Though the central conceit of an undercover policeman should provide the reader with ample opportunity for suspense and detection Maurie Procter instead delivers a plodding story that mixes soap opera melodrama with a fairly routine police investigation. Sam Gilmour, owner of the Starving Rascal, is murdered for his rare coin collection and Bill Knight is the rookie policeman chosen by his superiors to be a “pub crawler”, apparently police slang for an undercover cop who haunts bars trying to elicit information from the regular customers. Knight’s original task was to gather information on illegal gambling but Gilmour’s murder offers his superiors the chance to put him on double duty as a “police spy” a term Knight finds more accurate to describe his unwelcome assignment.
|US 1st paperback (Berkeley, 1958)|
Soon Knight finds himself set up in a boarding house owned by Mrs. Byles and sitting at the dinner table holding conversations with his landlady and her three children, Gunnar, Rosemary and Junie, in an attempt to get to the bottom of Gilmour’s murder. Gunnar is soon implicated as the prime suspect. Junie, only eighteen years old and the youngest of Mrs Byles’ children, starts to show an amorous interest in the rugged Knight. When another female suspect, Gilmour’s adopted daughter Gay, begins to show signs of jealousy Knight’s job is hampered by their rivalry and competing attentions. Unfortunately, soap opera elements threaten to overtake the crime plot at this stage.
But there are the thug characters named McGeen and Frost to keep Knight busy as well. Gunnar is mixed up with these two bookies who may or may not also be involved in the murder of the pub owner. When an attempt is made by McGeen to sell a gold ingot bar to a local junk dealer the police are alerted and the case comes to a startlingly rapid close.
For me there wasn’t enough detection in this story to keep interest in the crime plot. The subplot of the women vying for Bill Knight’s attention and the repeated beating scenes of the gangster characters kept intruding and distracting me. When Knight is alone and focused on the gathering of evidence — even if it is a bit unorthodox — the book approaches true excitement. But these scenes are few and far between. Only when Mrs. Byles is onstage in the soap opera sections does the story hold real interest. Procter’s creation of a complex and non-stereotypical working class mother who knows too well that her children are not angels and whose contempt for respectable people fuels her hatred of the upper class kept me reading to the final page. Mrs. Byles was the most complex and unexpected character in a book otherwise filled with rather cardboard, familiar types of 1950s cops-and-robbers melodrama.
The book is far from a classic for any era. I’m dumbfounded how it merits being called one of the fifty best books in a twenty-five year period of crime fiction publishing.
Reading Challenge update: N2 on the Golden Age Bingo Card – “Book with a Place in the Title”