Friday, January 18, 2013

FFB: The Dark Light - Bart Spicer

"The uneasy breath of a nasty idea kept pace with me." -- Carney Wilde in The Dark Light

For anyone who has read all the Philip Marlowe books and all the Paul Pine novels and still craves a private eye in a similar vein with more than a few nods to the great Chandler I recommend the work of Bart Spicer. His Carney Wilde is a tough guy with a heart and in his debut The Dark Light (1949) is struggling to make a living at his game. Enter Deacon Andrew Jackson who wants Wilde's help in locating Matthew Kimball, the missing preacher from the Shining Light Church. As with all missing person cases in a private eye novel Wilde will face some dirty doings and a few murders along the way.

There is touch of Ross Macdonald in this first book but I'm guessing it's mere coincidence since only The Moving Target had been published by 1949. That Spicer chose to include one of the typical wealthy and morally corrupt families in this book is not all coincidence but the similarities to what Macdonald would soon be known for are. The Prentices really aren't all that bad as the story progresses but there is a creepy mother-son relationship depicted in Mrs. Prentice's devotion to her hunky son Alec. Also her daughter Alicia at first appears to be one of the many predatory females that populate private eye novels. She gets an eyeful of Wilde and wants more. So she invites herself along in Wilde's investigation by sitting in his car and refusing to leave until he starts the car and takes her with him.

I particularly liked this Chandleresque passage that comes early in the book:
I got in my car and went home for a cold bath. I lay back in the water, getting up enough interest to keep my date with Alicia. I had the courtroom stink in my nose and it didn't mix well with Alicia. The dead sourness of unwashed bodies and disinfectant and brutality and fear and the clumsy maneuvering of justice. I got out of the tub and tried to rub some of it off.
What makes Spicer's private eye different from most of the detectives of this type is that Carney Wilde is first and foremost a businessman. He's worried about his small firm and in his debut he's just learning to play the game. The entirety of Chapter 6 is devoted to his backstory in which we learn he was a member of the CID in the army who returned to work as a house detective for a department store. His former boss at that store, an astute businessman who made a killing in real estate and banking, hired Wilde as a security consultant and with that money he was able to start his own private detective firm. But the clients aren't rushing in. When they do show typically they are like Deacon Jackson, barely able to afford a day's work. But Wilde needs business and he takes what he can get. The chapter also goes into great detail outlining his work with an insurance company. It's a contact Wilde desperately needs. If he can get an insurance company as a regular client he'd have it made. He is hoping to earn some extra cash by giving testimony in a robbery case of great concern for a certain insurance company. With that money Wilde envisions buying a new car, a new office with a staff of three, and plenty more.

UK edition, (Collins, 1950)
The detection in this book is also a highlight. Unlike most private eyes who rely on intuition and guesswork Carney Wilde has the skills of a logical detective more often seen in the work of Ellery Queen. In tracking down Matthew Kimball to a Manhattan hotel he finds the illusion of a inhabited room but a few odd elements that make him suspect Kimball was never in the room. Chief among those clues are a radio speech without the changes he made on the original and a pair of eyeglasses with an old prescription. Combining these finds with some astute questioning of Deacon Jackson and the staff of Kimball's optometry store Wilde is faced with the fact that an impostor checked into the hotel.

What begins as a simple missing persons case soon becomes almost more than Wilde can handle. He finds himself enlisting the aid of his old army buddy who also happens to be a private detective working in New York to do some legwork and save on his commuting from Pennsylvania. He also finds himself collaborating almost against his will with Lt. Grodnick who thinks Kimball will turn up alive somewhere with a woman on the side. Wilde who has a much better understanding of human nature and without ever having met Kimball knows this is the wrong read on the preacher. Wilde will end up confronting blackmailers, an angry bigot with a sexually ravenous daughter, some talkative bartenders, and a nosey landlady before he manages to put all the pieces together and stop a killer who wants to protect a deep, dark secret.

Bart Spicer as he appears on the
rear DJ panel of the 1st edition
At journey's end Spicer piles on too much melodrama in what Grodnick calls "a Philo Vance like set up" but just getting to know this detective, a wise guy with a compassionate heart, in his debut was well worth the trip. I'm ready to start on the second and third books in the series and will report back on Carney Wilde's progress in the private eye biz.

For more on Carney Wilde and  Bart Spicer see the excellent info on this page at The Thrilling Detective Website.

The Carney Wilde Private Eye Novels
The Dark Light (1949)
Blues for a Prince (1950)
The Golden Door (1951)
Black Shep Run (1951)
The Long Green (1952)
The Taming of Carney Wilde (1954)
Exit, Running (1959)

7 comments:

  1. This sounds pretty dang good. Next time I'm in a Chandler mood . . .

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  2. I have long had a copy of BLUES FOR THE PRINCE on my shelf but this review has made me dig it out and start to actually read it.

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    1. I am reading that book next, Ron, and will be posting a review soon. Somewhere I read BLUES FOR A PRINCE is one of the best private eye books dealing with popular music.

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  3. John, thanks for introducing me to Bart Spicer and his private eye novels. Carney Wilde sounds like a fascinating character. I haven't read Chandler in years and I am not too familiar with Queen and Macdonald. I have the latter's books including THE MOVING FINGER but like many other crime-fiction in my pile, I haven't read it yet.

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  4. I have an extremely battered old paperback of this one.

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  5. Another excellent post on yet another new-to-me author, John! You're doing a real service by bringing these types of books to wider attention. Comparisons to Chandler and MacDonald are sure to get my interest piqued, and it sounds like this one stands out a bit from the pack by including some details on the nuts-and-bolts of the P.I. business. By a "Philo Vance like set-up," it sounds like Spicer has added a nice puzzle aspect to the usual hard-boiled plot, which is intriguing, even if, as you suggest, he doesn't quite pull it off.

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    1. The "Philo Vance set-up" is a plan that Wilde has to bring together all the suspects to the Prentice estate under the guise of a dinner party and then expound on the case in front of the suspects just like the old amateur sleuths in 20s and 30s whodunits. Things don't exactly go as planned. The puzzle aspect is interesting. The over-the-top hysterics complete with ranting confession from the guilty one in the final pages were not to my liking. But that was the only fault as I saw it with this impressive debut. I'm sure Spicer gets better in his later books.

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