Friday, April 11, 2014

True Confessions? The Diary (1952), by William Ard

Another helping of hard-boiled this week, with William Ard's The Diary (1952).  Ard has been lucky to get some vocal enthusiasts, Dennis Miller, who has a blog about the author, and genre critic Francis Nevins, who has written an introduction to some reprints of Ard crime novels by Fender Tucker's Ramble House.

a young-looking William Ard
striking a cool pose
(courtesy Dennis Miller
williamard.wordpress.com
The Diary, the second of William Ard's Timothy Dane detective novels, has not been reprinted by Ramble House, though Ard's first and third, The Perfect Frame (1951) and .38 (1953), have been, in a twofer volume titled Perfect .38.

In his introduction to Perfect .38, Nevins distinguishes Ard's writing from what he calls the "sadism-snigger-and-sleaze" school of Mickey Spillane, arguing that Ard

carried on in the tradition of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, in which the private eye stands for personal and political decency, legitimate violence abounds but sadism is eschewed, sex is not a savage perversion but a restoration of oneself and a friendly caring for another.

Without getting extensively into the matter of Nevins' characterization of Spillane, who remains popular to this day, I will say that Nevins highlights some of the qualities about The Diary I found appealing.

One deal breaker for me with Spillane has always been the enjoyment his "hero," Mike Hammer, takes in killing people. It's not just that Hammer is willing to take the law into his own hands, vigilante-style, it's that in doing so he is so palpably satisfying his own personal blood lust.

Timothy Dane, on the other hand, is a different sort of hard-boiled detective, at least from my reading of The Diary. For starters, just take that name, "Timothy."  I'm not an expert in hard-boiled monikers, but there's something boyish and non-macho about the name Timothy Dane (just compare it with Mike Hammer).

And check out the striking cover illustration of the Popular Library edition of The Diary. This illustration depicts Dane, not with Diane Rebow, the brattish eighteen-year-old millionaire's daughter and author of the novel's titular diary, but rather with a young prostitute who appears in one short scene in the book, trying to pick him up.

The whole scene is extraneous to the plot, yet it has lingered in my memory:

She was young and thin and very sad looking.  Her skirts were hiked to knee level and she wore a transparent blouse and a black brassiere but not because it was hot. She asked me for a cigarette.  I handed her one from the pack and lit it.  She cupped my hand in both of hers.
"Thanks," she said.
"Yeah."
"Nice night out."
"Yeah."
"You live in New York?"
"Yeah."
"You wanna get laid?"
"Nope."
"Sure you do."
"Nope."
"What's the matter--you queer?"
"I'm broke."
The girl shrugged her shoulders.  "Who isn't?"

Dane's face looks unusually softened and sensitive for a man on a hard-boiled paperback from this era (and despite her attempted airs the "girl" on the cover looks just that--a girl). Dane isn't swaggering or brandishing his gun; instead he's pensively holding out a packet of cigarettes.

Don't get me wrong, Dane does his share of tough stuff in this book, including killing a guy, but he doesn't seem to get enjoyment out of it and he expressly rejects the notion of playing God.  He is a decent man.

a much different encounter
The Diary opens very much in Chandler-Hammett tradition, with Dane getting hired to straighten out  a mess a millionaire's daughter has gotten herself into.  Diane Rebow's diary has been stolen and her father, in the midst of planning a political career, is anxious to get it back. It seems there's some steamy stuff in it, though the father insists it all must just be teenage imagination, fueled by Hollywood films and romance novels.

Soon Dane is enmeshed in a messy affair of multiple murders, drugs and civic corruption at the highest levels.

This is a good hard-boiled mystery, even shorter than most for the period and never lapsing into the tedium of endless fisticuffs.

To be sure, there is quite a lot of incident (including a good share of what Nevins deems "legitimate violence").

However, our hero, with perhaps implausible good fortune, survives a final scrape with death and at the end explains everything to the characters assembled at the millionaire's house, just like he's Hercule Poirot or something. It's masterfully done.

Dane even finds time for some romance with Eileen Kay, the personal assistant of political boss Jim Steele (yes, the very same name as Dana Chamber's hard-boiled sleuth, discussed here last week). Kay is a good character, sexy (natch), smart and independent, although Ard does have her fall prey to a couple "comic" misunderstandings that don't do her keen brain justice (Nevins justly refers to this as "elements of Hollywood sex comedy").

After she and Dane have survived a quite traumatic night, she offers herself to Dane--who has recently been sapped, shot in the shoulder and injected with codeine--and is quite miffed when he has the temerity to fall asleep on her (okay, she didn't know about the codeine, but she was around for the sapping and shooting parts and might have surmised that he might not be up to another job, so to speak, that night).

I know in hard-boiled mythology the hero is supposed to be able to manage head bashings and bullet wounds without too much more than batting an eye (let alone having to resort to hospitalization), but that he's also expected the very same night to make a woman out of the heroine is a bit much!

Be that as it may, I found The Diary a great read and will be returning again to the work of William Ard, an author who died much too young in 1960 at the age of 37.

2 comments:

  1. If you really want to read too much into names, consider "Dane" an allusion to arguably the most famous Dane of all, Hamlet, who -- like our hero -- was torn between opposing impulses. In Dane's case (and arguably Hamlet's) , between what feels right and what is right.

    Or maybe Ard just picked the name out of a hat.

    Great piece, though, on a great book.

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    Replies
    1. I'll buy it! Glad you liked the piece, Kevin, you reminded me I need to do look at some more Ard.

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