Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Greenmask! - Elizabeth Linington

"This is Number One - Greenmask!" proclaims the hastily scrawled note attached to the corpse found in Walt's Malt Shop. On top of the violently beaten body is a book neatly tied with a green ribbon. It's a copy of Thomas' Guide to Los Angeles County. Sgt. Ivor Maddox would rather devote time to unpacking his numerous books in his recently purchased new home instead of sorting out what seems to be the beginning of a lunatic killer on the rampage.

Maddox is also worried that the criminal has, like himself, an extensive knowledge of old murder mysteries and has let those stories run wild in his warped imagination. "Greenmask? Shades of Farjeon," he mutters to himself at the crime scene of the first victim. There's also a bit of Edgar Wallace and...something else. Something that rings a faint bell but he just can't hear loudly enough. That something else will eat away at Maddox until back home weary from routine police work he tries to relax by shelving his vast library. When he unpacks his numerous mystery novels (in neat alphabetical order) he finds that something else among the volumes in his personal library.

"For God's sake, you can't have that!" said Maddox in alarm. "If you get started on Carr, I won't get any useful work out of you for weeks. Here--" He scanned the shelves and gave Rodriguez And Then There Were None. "That's quite enough excitement for you until we've caught up to Greenmask."
Fans of Golden Age detective novels have more than they ever could wish for in Greenmask! (1964) in which a killer uses a fairly well known mystery novel as the template for a series of killings. I won't mention the book for fear of ruining a little surprise (and I would hope that anyone who already knows will also refrain from doing so in the comments). I enjoyed this mystery for the sheer hutzpah it took to write a copycat killer story and rely solely on a book that already exists as a model for the basic plot. I managed to see the connection early on yet Linington's characters kept me reading to the end. There was, however, rather a big letdown for me by the time I got to the final pages.

What makes the book such a fun read is the unusual stream of consciousness style of detective work Maddox engages in. This is his first appearance in a relatively short series. Linington was known in the 1960s as the "Queen of the Police Procedurals" and her series about Luis Mendoza written under the pseudonym Dell Shannon totaling over 40 books seem more like what a reader might expect in a police procedural. Here, the reader sees little of the police work; Maddox delegates routine tasks and questioning to the rookies and grunts and it all happens offstage. they later return and give reports in dialogue scenes. The majority of the detective work is done in Maddox's head and we read of his odd associational style of thinking. Linington attempts to convey Maddox's stream of conscious detective work by composing his thoughts in a telegraphic, abrupt prose style and almost perfectly captures on paper a replication of the way running thoughts crowd themselves and overlap in one's mind.

She extends this running thought fascination in her characters' speech patterns. The dialogue is rendered with many interrupted thoughts, lots of dashes and ellipses. All of the characters interviewed by the police talk this way. Only the police seem to be able to speak in full sentences without being distracted. By midway into the book you just hope for two or three pages of easy dialogue exchanges without someone going off into a non sequitar monologue. Linington reaches hyperrealism overload at the expense of a good story.

Typical of this era we also get a lot of character work focusing mostly on Maddox' personal life which involves his inexplicable sexual allure with women. Yes, you read that correctly. He basically does not understand nor does he like being a sex object. You'd think he'd enjoy all the attention, but weirdly it has placed a strain on his job and stain on his reputation. This allure has been so disruptive that Internal Affairs has called him up more than once. Maddox' magnetism knows no bounds extending even to the lowlifes. One of his biggest fans is a character who seems to have wandered in from the pages of a Jonathan Craig novel -- local lush Maggie McNeill. These scenes are the kind of thing you expect from 1930s vaudeville sketch comedy with Maggie's dialogue rendered in sibilant drunken slurring. More embarrassing than funny.

One caveat is the final solution. After discovering Maddox' library of vintage detective fiction, the multiple allusions to titles he (and presumably Linington) find to be the best of the genre, and the real fun of watching Detective Cesar Rodriguez become an avowed Golden Age detective fiction fan, we get to the denouement. It is uninspired to say the least. In addition to borrowing her plot from a well known writer Linington seems to have borrowed her killer from the pages of true crime history. While she may have thought she had pulled a neat twist circa 1960s what she did was reveal something completely different -- her prejudices and ignorance. Some unsubtle clueing mixes with melodramatic character behavior in what amounts to one of the most oft-repeated cliche villains we encounter in vintage fiction. The unveiling of the culprit is handled so distastefully, showing little compassion or insight into human nature, that it fairly ruined an otherwise enjoyable book.


  1. The only Linington book I've read is Alter Ego--back before blogging, so I don't have a real good review of it (short one on Good Reads that I converted from whatever the book-tracker was on Facebook for awhile). It's about a mystery writer who thinks his character may have come to life. This sounds like an interesting one--if only for the mix with the vintage mysteries. Have to keep an eye out for it.

    1. Up until the penultimate chapter I really enjoyed it. The best part was how Cesar Rodriguez slowly becomes utterly hooked on old mysteries. He starts with one Christie and says, "Fascinating! Are all her plots this complicated?" So Maddox gives him another. One time he just throws the book he's finished on Maddox' desk and says "More please." Hysterical!

  2. I read a lot of the Luis Mendoza series when I was younger, maybe in my twenties. May have read some of these; I think I got whatever I could find at the library at the time. This sounds very interesting.