The ghost of the title is not a specter at all but a writer. The idea of a ghost being someone who does the work for another who takes the credit will become a metaphor in the murder investigation as well. The cast is made up of six - count 'em - six writers: three screenwriters, one playwright turned screenwriter, and two secretary wannabe script writers. More writers than any Hollywood agent could ask for. Providing for a nice segue to Ben Breck -- vile, smarmy, and hated agent for several writers and actors in the book. It's only natural that someone as loathed as he is should up with an Argentinian knife stuck in his chest.
There are parallel stories going on. The first deals with Lt. Bernal from the Sheriff's office who is investigating Breck's murder aided by his team of sharp-witted detectives. At the same time we read of writer John Chumleigh and his actress wife Sally Marsh who are also trying to prove what really happened. Chumleigh has his own name to clear. He's witnessed a lot including seeing his own wife in the vicinity of the murder site and he does his best to withhold infromation or mislead Bernal. When Chumleigh and his wife discover a second corpse -- a duplicitous stenographer with multiple identities and formerly in the employ of Breck -- the desire to protect his wife and friends becomes more urgent.
The story is almost as complex and dizzying as The Big Sleep. It's clear that McDermid has a fondness for that type of hardboiled private eye novel. There's a Christie-like murder in someone's past, a sordid blackmail ring, and the eventual uncovering of multiple deep, dark secrets in the past lives of all of the suspects. Clues are laid as early as the opening with the rookie postman and his batch of letters, and will include a talking magpie that uses curse words, several Helen McCloy-like slips of the tongue, and shockingly a dead cat that had been smothered with a pillow. The detection throughout is excellent by both the police team and the amateurs from Movieland.
|Finlay McDermid wrote the story, most likely|
also collaborated on the screenplay for this western
The story takes place in the first week of December 1941 with the date December 6 prominently mentioned. No doubt that date had fresh impact on readers in 1943 when the book was first published. It's one of the few American detective novels I've read that uses events of World War Two to directly impact the way a murder investigation is handled. When news of the Pearl Harbor attack reaches the Sheriff's office Bernal is temporarily taken off the case in order take charge of high priority surveillance of ports and harbors. What follows is the one bit of highly improbable plotting – Bernal allows John and Sally to continue their amateur sleuthing as long as they report back to him their findings. They have become ghost detectives for Bernal in the same way John's various secretaries have been trained to become ghost writers for his radio scripts.
Anthony Boucher raved about this book when it first came out and kept expecting another book from McDermid. He was brilliant at the mystery novel based on this debut. But like most writers living in Hollywood McDermid preferred to surrender himself to movies and TV. It would be more than ten years before he tried his hand at another mystery novel. See No Evil was published again by Simon and Schuster in 1958. I recently found an affordable copy and when I've read it I'll let you know if Finlay McDermid still had the stuff that he shows off so well in Ghost Wanted.