Friday, August 5, 2011

FFB: The Man with My Face - Samuel W Taylor

Imagine coming home to find a stranger in your home who looks just like you. Imagine, too, that your spouse and your friends insist that the stranger is you and you are a fraud.  How do you prove them wrong?  This is the nightmare problem that faces the protagonist of Samuel Taylor's debut mystery novel. It's a whirlwind of an action thriller and has elements of the traditional detective novel as well.

The Man with My Face foreshadows the post-World War 2 paranoia that would show up in so many private eye novels and other suspense thrillers throughout the late 1940s and into the early 1950s. In addition to the theme of loss of identity the book is very much about trust. Finding the right person or people to believe Charles "Chick" Graham's story provides the main thrust of the plot. The only way to escape the trap of his stolen identity and avoid further victimization of the grandiose plot hatched to frame him for a $2 million bank robbery Graham decides to turn the scheme around. Rather than fruitlessly trying to prove that he is the real Graham he decides to prove that Rand (the bank robbing double) is not Graham. A subtle difference to be sure, and yet a brilliant strategy.

The story is replete with crazy coincidences. Graham finds a business card from a salesman who visited him at his office. To escape the police he pretends to be James Pease, the salesman who lives only a couple blocks away. He convinces the cop to take him home - Pease's home - and through sheer luck gets into the unlocked house. Then he has to talk his way out of that predicament when Pease walks in and asks Graham who he is and why he just walked into his home. Later, Pease will run into Graham and Rand on a commuter train and discover Graham's secret. Or what he thinks is Graham's secret.

Barry Nelson (right) insists he is the real Charles Graham in the 1951 film

Added to the high level of coincidence are B movie tricks and gimmicks. Much needed information is received through incredibly detailed newspaper articles and emergency radio announcements. These are easy ways out for any thriller writer and are terrible clichés to us these days. Taylor's other novice writer annoyance is what I call the Soap Opera Dialog Syndrome. Everyone addresses each other repeatedly for no reason. "Chick, how did your face end up like that?" "Well, Mary, it's a long story." "Oh Chick, I have all the time you have." "OK, Mary grab a chair" "Ready when you are, Chick." Chick, Mary, Chick, Mary! Blah, blah, blah! On a radio or TV show this is sometimes necessary. In a book where the scene is between two characters it's completely unnecessary. A minor complaint but one that just grates on my nerves when the dialog is made up of 90% of these type of exchanges.

Then there is the strange man in the black leather "zip jacket" with the Doberman. He seems to show up everywhere Graham goes. Not only are the police after Graham this guy with a vicious dog is after him as well. It's a series of pursuits followed by narrow escapes throughout the entire book. Graham needs an ally and the only person he can think of turning to is his former girlfriend, Mary.

Once again through a series of coincidences Graham runs into people who provide him with information about Mary. He is lucky enough to track her down and she and her brother, Walt, after listening to Graham's outrageous story finally believe him and decide to offer their help. Without them Graham would've been sunk.

Slowly Rand sees that his scheme is falling apart and he does his best to enlist some other villains to prevent Graham from succeeding in ruining the plan. There are several brutal murders, two abductions, a handful of dog attacks, and a fortuitous run-in with a poison oak bush that temporarily gives Graham an unwanted disguise. Amid all this action there is also some legitimate and very clever detection on the part of Graham, Mary, Walt and even James Pease –- the salesman who will make one final appearance in a scene involving a walk-in meat freezer.

As if all that preceded wasn't enough Taylor adds a final surprising twist and eleventh hour salvation from the least likeliest character to have uncovered the plot. All in all, a remarkable debut from a crime writer who contributed only two books to the genre. Taylor's second book, with the unfortunate title of The Grinning Gismo, will be reviewed here in the future. I highly recommend The Man with My Face as a perfect example of an imaginative cat-and-mouse thriller with the added bonus of some well thought out detective story elements.


  1. This sort of thing always makes a great premise, doesn't it?

  2. This has been on my To Be Read list for far too long! Thanks for the nudge. It might help, even though it's in a closet chuck full of Pocket's, Gold Medal's, Graphic's and Dell First Edition's that are patiently waiting their turn too.

    I did not know that there was a film made of this book, or if I ever did, I'd forgotten. It doesn't seem to be very well known. Only two comments and two external links on IMDB, all relatively favorable. I'll really have to track down this one on DVD.

  3. There's a second printing on eBay -- only $450!

  4. Reminds me of Patrick Quentin's "Puzzle for Fiends" which has a somewhat similar plot.

  5. I'm tempted to make an offer of $5 on that copy just to piss off the seller. Ebay sucks these days. Very cool wrap-around art on the DJ, though, even if the dog pictured on the rear panel is not a Doberman but a German Shepherd.

  6. Must say, the Pocket Books cover is not only eye-catching, but has just about the oddest pitch copy I've ever seen. Not only does this doppelgänger have Chick's wife, but he also has his dog, his clothes and his ears. Note that the dog is listed first. Your fine post drives the hook in further.

    Off topic, but I was interested in the comments concerning eBay. Time was - last century -that I purchased quite a bit through the site. I visited for the first time in years last month... and now keep returning because I can't quite get my head around the difference. Between the inflated prices and expensive POD dreck, it's as if eBay now appeals only to those who have never set foot in a bookstore (used or otherwise) and are unaware of Abebooks and other online bookseller sites.

  7. Brian -

    I was waiting for someone to mention the line about the ears on the cover copy. Believe it or not, the ears of Graham and Rand play a crucial role in the plot. And dogs are a big part of the story. There is a dog trainer and his wife who show up in the end and the plot to create a double for Graham turns out to have included a double for his dog! I was tempted to use the cover copy as my inspiration for a bit about dogs and ears as plot devices in the crime novel, but couldn't think of any other books where ears were so important than this one. I vaguely recall some story about ear prints but the title and author are completely lost to me.

    Don't press my eBay button. I used to sell a lot of books there, but I'm sickened by it now and gave up in June. Probably will never go back as a seller.

  8. Is eBay so bad for prices though? I see crazy prices on too.

  9. Sounds fascinating - must read it one of these days!