16 May 2011

Horace Brown: From Penthouse to Pavement



The Penthouse Killings
Horace Brown
Toronto: News Stand Library, 1950

Characters come fast and furious in The Penthouse Killings; I'd counted eight by the end of page two. This avalanche of names and faces is a transparent trick, thrusting the reader into the whirlwind that is the life of private detective Squire Adams. You see, our improbably named hero has been given under fifteen hours – cover copy claims 48 – to help police solve the murder of a woman whose body was tossed from the top floor of Manhattan's Hotel Glamora. Failure means that Squire can kiss his license goodbye.

It's not hard to see that the NYPD needs help, but is it really so smart to put Squire in charge? As the private dick and several dozen boys in blue move about the 65-storey hotel, two more murders take place and the dead woman's body goes missing. A few people try to take their lives before Squire's eyes – though, to be fair, only one is successful. We're at hour ten before anyone – in this case, Ace Milliken of the Homicide Bureau – thinks to secure the scene of the first murder.
"Excuse me, Mr. Adams, it's none of my business mebbe, but don't you think we oughta turn that mob out of here? They may be messing up clues."
The private eye was thoughtful for a moment.
"I've been wondering the same thing, Ace. But I'd say not. Somehow I feel it's better to have them all where we want them for the time being. If we've missed any clues, we're liable not to find them now, anyway. Okay?"
Um... okay.

With so very many Manhattanites packed into the hotel, property of playboy Handsome Harry Hanover, it's to be expected that Squire would know one or two. There's the first victim, coked up blonde-haired beauty Fritzi Hahn, "the dame with the —." And may I add that she was also known for her "—"? Squire was "the one real love of her life". The second, Lydia Krakochenko, another old flame, is one of Handsome Harry's seven ex-wives. Lydia might be "the world's greatest ballerina", but she's not particularly memorable; certainly she won't rank amongst what the cover copy promises as "the most fantastic characters you've ever encountered". Speaking personally, I spotted just one candidate: Handsome Harry's hulking sibling Edith, a hermaphrodite who practices obstetrics at nearby Mercy Hospital.

We don't see much of Edith, "the half-man, half-woman sister", but Squire is present on every page. The reader will see him as a bumbler, but not so his fellow "fantastic characters". "Young man, you must have a fine mesh in that mind of yours", says Edith, who is impressed by Squire's memory. This about a man who, as the conclusion draws near, suddenly remembers an old secret pertinent to the case. "Lydia told me once," Squire explains, "and I had forgotten it, for she told me in bitter self-mockery..."

Um... okay.

It spoils nothing to reveal that Squire solves Fritzi's murder – that is, if one accepts his shaky account of what transpired – and he has his license renewed.

"I hope we get together again some time", says one cop as he walks out the door.

Never happened. There was no second Squire Adams mystery. Who would hire him?

Trivia: The Penthouse Killings is only Canadian pulp I've encountered to feature chapter titles. The first, "High Dive at Low Tide", sounds great, but makes little sense; the second, "Body, Body, Who's Got the Body?", only serves as a spoiler. Others, like "Whither Do You Wander?", send the eyes a-rollin'.

Object: The image at the top of this post comes courtesy of an online bookseller. My copy, which looks like it was pitched from a penthouse and then run over by a truck, is more reflective of the publisher's poor productions. Note that the caption, "VIOLENT MURDERS IN A PLAYBOY'S PENTHOUSE", is sliced down the centre.

The title of this post is a bit of a cheat, though not nearly so great a one as the crappy cover image. Fritzi's fall doesn't end at the street, but on the Hotel Glamora's fiftieth-floor terrace. She's dead and bloody before being tossed over the side... she's also naked. Spoiler: the murderer is a woman, not a grey-haired man.

Access: Worldcat informs that the University of Calgary and the University of California, San Diego have copies, but – perhaps – no other institution. Not to worry, there are over a dozen copies currently listed online. Priced between US$4 and US$20, condition doesn't appear to be much of a factor.

Update: When first posting, I reported that in 1950 The Penthouse Killings appeared on British newsstands as The Corpse was a Blonde. Though a handful of trusted booksellers make the claim, it is nevertheless incorrect; the latter is unrelated to the former. The cover corpse isn't Fritzi Hahn, but "the beautiful, young blonde Rita Salton, lying in the mud".


I'm indebted to bowdler for this correction... and am embarrassed to note that I not only read about, but commented on The Corpse was a Blonde just last year at his Bantam Publications of Los Angeles blog. There is a hole in the fine mesh of my mind (I write in bitter self-mockery).

6 comments:

  1. This is the kind of writing that reminds me of quirky Robert Leslie Bellem and even Harry Stephen Keeler. Both of them masters in creating fantastic characters, mangling the English language and presenting detectives who arae guided by confounding illogic. BTW, I've known a few guys noted for their "–". I tell no lies.

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  2. Bellem I don't know, but Keeler has stayed with me since stumbling upon William Poundstone's site devoted to the man. Poundstone's descriptions of Keeler's novels are unforgettable.

    X. Jones of Scotland Yard: "A man is found strangled to death in the middle of a lawn, yet there are no footprints other than his own. Police suspect the 'Flying Strangler-Baby,' a killer midget who disguises himself as a baby and stalks victims by helicopter."

    Genius.

    Those guys you mention - surely they weren't also known for their "—".

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  3. John has just pointed out to me an amazing coincidence, or we're channeling the same Book Gods. On Tuesday on my blog, the day after you wrote this one, I posted a review of Brown's MURDER IN THE ROUGH, which he wrote as Leslie Allen:

    http://mysteryfile.com/blog/p=10032

    If something as synchronistic as this happened in fiction, we'd never believe it.

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  4. We'd never believe it, though that wouldn't have stopped Harry Stephen Keeler.

    There'll be one final Horace Brown post tomorrow, if you can stand it. After that, I'm content to let the man rest in peace.

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  5. Brian: Horace Brown was my father. I've been enjoying all your comments. I have a copy of each of his books so I guess you can add my name to the (small) list of people and organizations that have a copy of one or some of my father's work. And thank you for your kind words about my father re your review of Whispering City. Although young, I remember when he wrote it - we lived at the time in Dunbarton, Ontario, out in the country. Money always seemed to be short as the writer's life was a precarious one but there were so many more outlets for stories, radio plays, etc. then. Going over my dad's papers after he died, I was amazed at the number of small anecdotes he could turn into a story that sold - Saturday Night magazine was one, in particular, that remains in my memory. You're right about the Globe and Mail not printing an obituary. But The Star did one and phoned me for a quote. I provided a photo of him as Toronto alderman. Regards, Myrna (Brown) Foley

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    1. My thanks for the kind words, Myrna. I've been keeping my out out for more Horace Brown. It was indeed an interesting time to be a writer with all sorts of avenues that have side been closed off. I can't help but admire the energy, flexibility and ingenuity of folks such as your father. I can't help but feel there are a few lessons to be learned here.

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