Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Case of the Nervous Nude - Jonathan Craig

Not true. She was wearing shoes!
Not that I was in search of the sleaziest police procedural ever written but I do believe I have found it in Case of the Nervous Nude (1959). Out of the six books in this series that I have read so far this will win hands down in a competition of the book with the most oddballs, the most alternative sex practices, the most deviant and/or amoral characters, and the book with the darkest and most depressing atmosphere of the lot. I usually bestow the title of "Freak of the Week" to at least one character in a Jonathan Craig novel but there are so many to choose form I may have to have a kind of horse race finish with win, place and show.

The deeper I delved into this police procedural series the more I discover how Craig learned to concoct plots that are more and more multi-layered with the kind of red herrings and subplots you expect to find in books written by masters of the traditional mystery. This was like Ed McBain crossed with Agatha Christie with a dollop of Jean Genet – if you can imagine such a monster hybrid of genre fiction. Sleazy sex, creepy characters and solid police investigative techniques complete with bureaucratic obstacles and dreary paperwork all combine in a compactly told tale of outcast New Yorkers with lust and greed and several other deadly sins in their hearts. The number of characters with murder in their past, for example, rivals any Christie novel. Turning the pages is like releasing a Pandora's trunk of cruel wife killers, avaricious abortionists, and sex fiends upon the world. Looking for any sign of that jewel called Hope at the bottom of the trunk is almost pointless.

The story opens with Pete Selby and Stan Rayder, our cop protagonists, on their local beat. It's a foggy night and Stan hears something odd, but he can barely make out the sight. It is a woman running in high heels and as she approaches he sees that she's wearing nothing but the shoes. The naked dame jumps into a car waiting for her and it speeds off into the night. The two cops make their way in the direction from where she was running and find a garage with a door slightly open and a Cadillac with its motor still running. Inside the Cadillac they find a dead man, his face flushed not with a sunburn but the telltale signs of carbon monoxide poisoning. Further investigation uncovers an exhaust fan that had been tampered with to prevent it from removing possibly deadly fumes. It's a scene of murder for sure.

The usual police routine follows of identifying the victim, trying to locate the naked girl, and figuring out if she was with the guy or had anything to do with his death. Selby and Rayder will uncover several people with murder and larceny in their hearts. A jewel robbery, the thieves and some missing loot will keep turning up in their investigation. Along the way we meet a parade of the strangest characters in any of these books. Here's just a sampling:

  • "Drummer" Dugan – a local hood who gets his nickname from the way he pounds on doors to collect debts. He also loves to listen to marching band music. Oh! and he's a leper.

  • George & Elizabeth Willis - the parents of the naked girl who have the unusual habit of arguing through their dog. George will call his wife Liz to irritate her and she'll reply "The name is Elizabeth. Not Liz. Tell him, Chappy [the dog], tell him my is Elizabeth." The wife addresses the dog when she really is talking to her husband. Utterly bizarre.

  • Fred Sharma – somehow Fred manages to fool everyone into thinking he's a 35 year old Adonis. But up close and personal Pete sees he's closer to 50 and one of the poorest walking adverts for hair dye and plastic surgery out there. He also is a self-confessed sex addict with a penchant for frotting. For what? (I hear you ask in your usual puzzled voice.) Turns out it's a predilection for rubbing up against women in public places – especially crowded subway trains. A real charmer Fred is.

  • Wilbur Loftus – aka "the Ghoul" is a mortician's student who nearly killed his wife by giving her an overdose of "truth serum" when he suspected her of philandering with some local Lothario. She didn't tell him much and went into a coma instead.

  • Hootin' Annie – bar owner. I'll let Craig's words do the job here: "…real name, Anna Weber, born in Pell Street in New York's Chinatown – was Eurasian, an enormous neckless old harridan with a grayish-yellow skin, hooded black eyes, hair so black it had blue highlights in it, a voice her Jersey customers swore could be heard all the way to Hoboken, and a background that included being a lady bouncer in a waterfront dive in San Francisco, heading a phony Caodaist mission in Los Angeles, running a mitt camp with a succession of traveling carnivals, and teaching a refined form of judo to young ladies from Park and Fifth Avenues. She was a "character's character in an area where characters seem sometimes to outnumber the noncharacters three to one."

This nude is so nervous she left her clothes on
 Any one of them is deserving of the dubious honorific of "Freak of the Week." My preference for win, place and show would be Fred, Wilbur and the Willises with that second and third place running close to neck and neck. Feel free to come up with your own freak awards in the comment section.

I almost forgot! As a bonus the reader gets a crash course in sex crime terminology, circa 1959. The book is littered with slang terms that I'd never heard of in the hundreds of books I've read from this era. A dumper whore, for instance, is a prostitute who likes to be beaten with a cloth belt. Circus shows are gatherings with girl on girl action scenes where the johns pay to watch but no joining in is allowed. A ringmaster is what you call the pimp who runs a circus show. The girls are probably called performers or acrobats, though it's not mentioned outright. You'll not learn things like that watching Law and Order: SVU. Don't you love vintage crime novels?

The following books by Jonathan Craig have been reviewed previously on this blog. Those marked with an asterisk are my favorites (so far) and come highly recommended.

The Dead Darling (1955)*
Morgue for Venus (1956)
Case of the Cold Coquette (1957)*
Case of the Beautiful Body (1957)
Case of the Petticoat Murder (1958)*
So Young, So Wicked (1957)* - not part of the Pete Selby/Stan Rayder series

9 comments:

  1. Each of your Craig posts makes me regret the sad fact that I ignored. then sold, my copy of Case of the Beautiful Body all the more. I'm beginning to suspect that before beginning each novel our author combed through Psychopathia Sexualis. It all seems so wonderfully weird and quirky.

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  2. John: I am not sure I could read Craig but I enjoy your posts about them. I learned about frotting from this review. What a disgusting character.

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    1. They are not for a general audience, that's for sure, Bill. I can't help but be fascinated by them though. I used to write a certain type of fiction and I am perhaps a bit too curious in reading about the vintage aspects of that world both in fiction and non-fiction. I'm getting more than my fair share of it in these books alone.

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  3. And there goes another addition to the JF Norris shelf in my home - thanks mate, ordered and now awaiting delivery with somethign like bated breath. Sounds wonderful - I wish they'd reprint it with your strapline, "The sleaziest police procedural ever written"!

    Cheers.

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  4. Another one for the "To Read" pile.

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  5. PS My copy has just arrived in the post and, joy of joys, though it's the UK reprint, it has exactly the same Gold Medal cover apart from the top right hand corner which has a white tap to say that cost is 2 shillings ... Lovely that is!

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    1. Lucky you! My copy is the Belmont Tower reprint seen in the second photo. I'm slowly trying to acquire all the Gold Medal editions of Craig's books, but they're pricey for some of the titles. I scored a copy of ALLEY GIRL last year (one of his few books published by Lion) and it's a beautiful copy. I'll be reviewing that next month.

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  6. Interesting... Fortunately there are several Jonathan Craig titles over at Munseys in various e-book formats so I can actually start reading.

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  7. Fred SHARMA? Is he an Indian? What a sleaze-ball. Thanks to him, I too have got to know of a new word. But this novel is definitely not for me. Too many perverts.

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