Thursday, July 5, 2012

FFB: Case of the Petticoat Murder - Jonathan Craig

In this fifth book in the series featuring 6th Precinct cops Pete Selby and Stan Rayder Jonathan Craig finally proves he can write not only a gritty, urban crime novel, but a twisty, red herring laden mystery. In Case of the Petticoat Murder (1958) there are the usual seedy sexual practices, colorful lowlife Greenwich Village characters, and ample amount of routine often dreary police work. This time, however, the crime turns out to be a puzzler cleverly concocted with devious misdirection worthy of a Golden Age whodunit.

Naomi Ellison is discovered hanging by her neck from a steampipe in her Greenwich Village studio apartment. She is completely nude except for a pair of stockings and high heeled shoes. Immediately we get a lesson in crime solving as Selby tutors a novice policewoman in murder disguised as suicide. In a lecture that goes into graphic detail that I will spare you he point s out the angle of the body clearly indicates it was hoisted up after death. Later, the M.E. supports his theory when it is learned that Naomi was strangled with a petticoat found tightly twisted and not so well hidden in a dresser drawer.

The victim, as usual, is a beautiful young woman with a secret life. Though she may have presented herself as a friendly neighbor Selby and Rayder soon discover that Naomi was renting out her apartment to couples who were indulging in illicit love affairs. Her home was in effect an assignation hotel room. Selby starts compiling a list of her customers and through routine interviews with them gradually pieces together a portrait of a women who not only supplemented her income as a hostess for sexual playmates but as a blackmailer. Careful readers should note that Craig's laying down of clues starts first and foremost with the manner in which Naomi's body was displayed. It will turn out to be one of the biggest clues to the identity of her killer.

I've often talked about the unusually modern aspects of Craig's books. When first published in the late 50s readers of these books might have been taken aback by not only his frankness in discussing sexual fetishes, but his frequent use of profanity. In the past, editors at Gold Medal have replaced the F bomb with tame euphemisms like "frag." Here we get the real thing. "Bullshit" and "half-assed" are only two of the terms that popped up. I think he may be the first of their authors to get a completely uncensored story in its final published form. And although there really isn't a character saddled with some odd form of sex practice or fetish there is a section which describes the practice of erotic asphyxia, both solo and in pairs, which I think was a pretty daring thing to throw into a crime plot for a book released in 1958.

I liked a lot of his minor characters. Craig is very good at capturing unique speech and slang of working class Manhattanites. And his strength in making those characters original in they way they dress and live is at its best in ...Petticoat Murder. Those who stand out are Josie Daniels, a diner waitress, who provides some vital clues to one of the suspect's hidden past; Marty Hutchins, the elusive athletically built boyfriend who appears in a photo Selby takes from Naomi's apartment, turns out to be something of a "kept boy" with a ferocious temper; Miss Hardesty, a snotty receptionist whose missing alligator handbag will provide one of the more interesting clues to the crime; and Johnny Farmer, the strangest guy of the bunch, a hayseed illiterate Lothario always on the prowl for a shapely willing woman whose home turns out to be one of the most repellent dives ever described in a paperback original.

As for police business, the 6th precinct novels always point out the drab and dreary job that is a real policeman's gig. The paperwork, the forms, the constant phone calls to BCI -- a branch of New York government bureaucracy Manhattan cops are always dealing with -- and, specifically, the Lost Property Bureau all figure prominently in this book. We even get a scene that gives us a little more insight into the irascible nature of Barney Fells, Selby and Rayder's immediate superior. Fells was a cop who loved the street and was an excellent policeman but when the lieutenant retires early he is promoted to fill the spot. Now saddled with a desk job he despises he has become a tool of police bureaucracy, forced to keep his team in line according to the book his moods become ever crankier, his temper always getting the better of him. At one point Selby's flagrant disobedience for strict police procedure so infuriates Fells he predicts Selby's lonely future: "You're hopeless, Pete. Give you another five years and you'll end up in the same damn fix I'm in. And you know something, smart ass? It'll serve you right."

The structure of the book echoes a few aspects of Golden Age detective novels. There is a slow reveal of a murder in the past that Naomi became privy to. There are ample clues and police leads that take the form of stolen items from her apartment that turn up in the hands of various suspects. There is the hunt for a missing address book with numerous secrets. There is the previously mentioned hand tooled, alligator handbag manufactured by a small company that keeps track of its creations by means of serial numbers and registration cards. One of the suspects turns out to be a wife killer on the lam very much in the manner of a frequent plot device employed by the Grand Dame herself, Agatha Christie. I doubt Christie would find much to admire in the book's emphasis on the sex-obsessed characters, but had she read the book straight through she might be forced to give a gold star or two to Craig's tightly plotted puzzle of a mystery with all its clues -- both red herrings and the real McCoys. Case of the Petticoat Murder certainly is teeming with plot twists and subplots.

Finally, I always like to bestow on one character the title of "Freak of the Week." Up until this book that character was always a sexual fetishist. This time, however, the honor goes to a more empathetic little guy. It's Louis Lozeck, an elderly gentleman who visits the precinct when his delusions get the better of him.  He finds refuge in the police offices and has as one of his few friends Pete Selby who sympathizes with the old man's mental illness. Louis, you see, is abnormally afraid of his sister-in-law with whom he lives. Every now and then he fears for his life. He is convinced she is in league with the Devil and is plotting to do him in. When life gets too fearful for him he heads on down to the 6th Precinct for a hour or two of chit chat, he buys Selby some coffee, Selby lets him keep the change. It's a scene of both weirdness and a tenderness rarely given the spotlight in Craig's work. I liked seeing that side of Pete Selby. I hope to see more of that in the remaining five books in the series.

Books by Jonathan Craig previously reviewed on this blog:

The Dead Darling
Morgue for Venus
Case of the Cold Coquette
So Young, So Wicked (not in the Selby & Rayder series)
Case of the Beautiful Body


  1. Right, that's settled, I'm going to have to buy some of these Craig - where should a newbie begin? I now have a shelf dedicated just to books I've bought through your recommendations mate, so thanks in advance!


    1. This one definitely is the best mystery with some excellent characters. Also Selby and Rayder get equal time. in some of the early ones Stan Rayder is kind of hoveirng in the background, soemtiems nearly forgotten until the end. I also liked Dead Darling and ...Cold Coquette - they have great characters (a Craig staple), and somewhat legitimate mysteries with as close to fair play clueing as possible in this type of detective novel. ...Cold Coquette so far has the most surprising finale.

    2. Brill - thanks very much John, greatly appreciate the advice.