Also included is a never collected novelette about Dr. Hugh Westlake, lead character in Webb and Wheeler's Jonathan Stagge novels. More on this wonderful collection, to which I'm happy to say I wrote the introduction, soon!
I reviewed the first Trant detective novel, Death and Dear Clara (1937), and I plan to review the third, Death and the Maiden (1939) this week. I also reviewed Trant's second adventure, the CrimeFile opus File on Claudia Cragge (1938). (Query: should the latter book be counted as a novel; I think so.)
Although he appeared in 20 shorter works between 1946 and 1955, Trant would not appear again in a detective novel until 1952, when Hugh Wheeler conceived the brilliant notion of pitting his and Webb's persistently perils-dodging Patrick Quentin series hero, Peter Duluth, against an unstoppable force, Lieutenant Trant, in Black Widow, where Trant implacably pursues Peter as his main murder suspect.
This was the last Patrick Quentin which was to feature Peter Duluth as the lead character, but it was not the last book in which Trant featured as the lead police investigator. In fact Black Widow, possibly the first Patrick Quentin to have been written entirely by Hugh (though I think it was probably the previous PQ novel, The Follower), set the template for most of the future PQ books, all of which were written after Hugh and "Rickie," as the latter man was known to friends and family, parted ways.
In My Son the Murderer (1954), Trant is pitted against Peter Duluth's brother, Jake, who tries to rescue his son Bill, Peter's nephew, from being ensnared in a murder investigation. In the remaining six PQ books there are no more Duluths, Hugh evidently having decided that he couldn't keep on having Duluth family members suspected of murder. But the pattern usually is the same: a male focal character, who sometimes serves as well as the narrator, is implicated in a murder affair, either through becoming a suspect himself or through trying to shield someone close to him who is suspected of murder.
|Mid-century American murder: stylish, sexy and deadly--|
and only 35 cents in paperback!
Hugh was able creatively to ring changes on this theme in successive novels throughout the decade of the Fifties, though only one Patrick Quentin was published after he shifted his career to writing plays and films, like, respectively, Big Fish, Little Fish (1961) and Five Minutes to Midnight (1962). (Piece coming up on that latter title!)
Without the distraction of the Duluths, interesting and enjoyable as the adventures in murder had been, Hugh was left free to fully explore new sets of characters within his preferred milieu of wealthy New York society, specifically some rich, dysfunctional family beset by deadly tensions that erupt in murder. The books are models of the mid-century mystery: sleek and fleet and filled with emotional tension and genuine detection. One might say that in them Wheeler has replaced the traditional stately Anglo-American country house murder stage with the swanky Manhattan apartment. (The novels The Man in the Net and Suspicious Circumstances offer more originality of setting.)
The anxiety formula is reminiscent of the mysteries of the American Queen of Anxiety herself, Mignon Eberhart, but Wheeler is a wittier as well as an appealingly astringent writer, more resembling the brilliant Margaret Millar. Like Millar too his novels are genuine detective novels. Cases in point are the Trant tales The Man with Two Wives (1955) and Shadow of Guilt (1959).
The first wife is Angelica, a wayward Bohemian who met and married Bill not long after the war when he was an ex-Marine finishing college on the GI Bill at a nowheresville university in Iowa and she the beautiful, restless daughter of a widowed English professor. After publishing a successful novel, Heat of Noon, he moved with Angelica to Europe, where Angelica gave birth to the couple's son, Rickie, and Bill tried--and repeatedly failed--to produce a second novel. The marriage collapsed, with Angelica leaving Bill and Rickie for another man.
(In case you are wondering if there's any meaning in Hugh's giving the little boy in the novel the same name as his old writing partner and companion, you may well be on to something. Of course "Rickie" was the name of Lucy and Ricky Ricardo's boy too--well, "Little Ricky," to be precise.)
Having divorced Angelica, who didn't contest the suit, Bill now has married into the wealthy New York Callingham family, led by arrogant mogul and pompous patriarch C. J. , who reminded me of Earl Janoth in Kenneth Fearing's The Big Clock. (The surname you'll note is Hugh's own.) Bill has discarded his ambitions as a writer, and now works for CJ. His second wife, Betsy, the unloved elder daughter of CJ, has started her own successful charity, the Betsy Callingham Leukemia Fund, which is managed by Bill's old Marines buddy Paul Fowler, husband of lovely, bubble-headed and bauble-bestrewn Sandra, sardonically nicknamed the Prop by her husband Paul. CJ, incidentally, much prefers his pampered second daughter, the willful and spoiled Daphne, to dutiful Betsy. Virtue is its own reward, so they say.
|the skull beneath the skin|
Soon Jamie has inveigled his way into the entitled lives of the Callingham clan, especially man hungry Daphne, who reminisces after meeting him, he "looked beautiful and charming. Honestly, you could have eaten him." And soon Daphne is making the rounds with Jamie. When it turns out that Jamie has rather a nasty past in the offing there are most decided ructions within the family circle.
After beautiful and charming Jamie is found shot dead in his apartment, however, all the clues seem damningly to point not to the Callinghams, but to Angelica, for whom Bill, most inconveniently for himself, may still be carrying something of a torch. What is a man with two wives to do?
Enter Lieutenant Trant, the deceptively polite and charming man from the Homicide Bureau, whom Bill intriguingly compares to one of the monks painted by 17th century Spanish artist Francisco de Zurbaran. Soon Trant is rending--ever so gently--the webs of deception the people involved in the case have woven around the facts. Hugh Wheeler does a great job of making the menace posed by this man scarily palpable to readers. Trant is so much more impressive than the countless blowhard cops who huffed and puffed their way through the pages of vintage crime fiction, often to utterly no avail. He adds considerably to the strength of the novel. (Compare to The Green-Eyed Monster, 1960, where Trant doesn't appear.)
This is a fine mid-century detective novel, the essence of a page turning thriller, but one which neglects neither clueing nor characterization. It was praised as one of the best PQ novels by Julian Symons, and I won't argue with that, though personally I might give the nod, among the later Trant books, to Shadow of Guilt, which followed a few years later. Review coming soon!
Incidentally, The Man with Two Wives was adapted in 1967 as the Japanese film Two Wives/Tsuma Futari, directed by Yasuzo Masamura. If anyone reading this review has seen it I would love to hear about it!