DEAD DAMES DON’T SING
By John Harvey.
The Mysterious Bookshop. 74 pages. $6.95. ISBN 978-1-61316-090-9
Reviewed by Jim Burns
Jack Kiley is a one-time aspiring footballer whose career was disrupted by injury, an ex-policeman, and a jazz fan. He now works as a private detective, “investigating dodgy insurance claims, snooping on behalf of a local firm of solicitors or shadowing errant wives.” And then one day he’s asked to contact a bookseller who has been offered the chance to buy a supposedly long-lost, unpublished pulp novel written to make money by a talented, but hard-drinking, impoverished poet. The poet died years ago, but one of his daughters claims to have found the manuscript in a cottage in Cornwall once owned by the family.
The bookseller needs to know if the manuscript is genuine, and hires Kiley to see what he can find out about it. Kiley doesn’t claim to have an awareness of most twentieth century literature, apart from writers like Patrick Hamilton, Graham Greene, Eric Ambler, and Gerald Kersh, and often puts on the typically English “straight-talking, call a spade-a-spade, don’t-waste-any-of those-high-faluting-ideas-on-me act” when he comes across people connected to the arts. The thought of attending a lecture at the British Library on some poets who were “the Visionary Heirs of William Blake” is enough to make him shudder.
Perhaps his main concession to an interest in anything artistic is the jazz he listens to. He likes Chet Baker, but has his doubts about Miles Davis. He’s not averse to some classical music, either, especially if it’s likely to put a lady at ease. And he does sometimes pay attention to the visual arts, though is reluctant to admit it: “I like a good snap as much as anyone,” he replies when asked if he’s into photography.
Kiley’s investigations bring him up against the poet’s daughters. The one who claims to have found the manuscript, and have the right to sell it, is a slick opportunist who has worked as a model, actor, and photographer. She knows how to use her good looks to get what she wants. The other is a somewhat frosty individual who is employed at the Poetry Society, says the manuscript is a fake, and is about to have a “literary” novel published. She’s careful to make it clear that she doesn’t think that her father would have written a novel called Dead Dames Don’t Sing set in the jazz clubs and pubs of 1950s Soho with a cast of shady characters, and that her own forthcoming book is superior to anything in that line.. Neither woman makes a good impression on Kiley. His own lady friend is a journalist with a sense of humour and a down-to-earth approach to dealing with his hang-ups about art and life. She likes to read Dickens and similarly big books, whereas Kiley thinks a couple of hundred pages at most is what a novel should add up to.
The cast of characters in this short, but entertaining book includes the bookseller, the late poet’s small-press publisher, now a resident in a nursing home, the daughter of an actress who may have had a fling with the poet, and sundry others, such as a dead screenwriter, an equally deceased and long-forgotten, pulp novelist, and a plumber in Penzance. They all add colour to the story, as do the little comments on life in London. Kiley seems to have problems when it comes to finding suitable accommodation. He loses one apartment (referred to that way no doubt because this is an American publication: flat might better describe the kind of places Kiley lives in) when the site is about to be redeveloped, and another, above a charity shop, when the property is going to be taken over and turned into an estate agent. It’s suggested that Kiley might be able to stay if the new owners keep the flat, but he inclines to the view that he’s choosy about who he associates with. As I watch the estate agents increasingly moving into various premises around where I live I have a certain amount of sympathy with his attitude.
I won’t delve too much into how and why the mystery of the manuscript is resolved, but it’s a tribute to John Harvey’s skill as a writer that everything is neatly wrapped up in such a short space. But, like one of the people in his book, he’s had a great deal of experience over the years as a novelist, short-story writer, poet, writer for TV and radio, publisher, little magazine editor, and much more (the back cover of Dead Dames Don’t Sing notes that he’s the author of more than one hundred books) so knows how to make an impact within a limited (in length, not content) framework. His characters take on real personalities with a minimum of effort. And he cleverly constructs a couple of convincing passages from the contested manuscript. It’s easy to see why he, like Kiley, admires writers such as Eric Ambler and Gerald Kersh, who were professionals in every sense of the word. I share his tastes and was delighted recently to find several old Kersh books in a local charity shop.
I was amused by the fact that attitudes towards crime novels and pulp writing (not necessarily the same thing) among some literary types are shown as still being coloured by their belief that they often represent an inferior area of activity. I’m possible prejudiced, having enjoyed many crime and pulp novels and short stories. And I’m convinced that the writing in them can sometimes be far superior to what I’ve read in “literary” novels. I’ve delighted in books by Gil Brewer, Richard Deming, John D. MacDonald, and William P. McGivern. Just a few from the hat. Those are the names of older writers, I know, but they’re the ones I like to read and even, in a small way, collect. With newer novelists I’d have to point to John Harvey as someone whose books always appeal to me.
A note on the publisher of this book. The Mysterious Bookshop is located in New York and Harvey’s book is the thirty-third in what they call their Bibliomysteries series, all the stories having connections, of one sort or another, to writers, bookshops, libraries, and books in general.