Friday, February 20, 2015

FFB: Norman Pink - Neglected Detective

Norman Pink is not your average private detective. He's not chasing after shapely women clients, sneaking pulls on a whiskey bottle hidden in his desk drawer or stumbling into a fistfight every ten pages or so. More likely he's stumbling over the rocky terrain of the English countryside, puffing on his asthma cigarettes, and making excuses for not being home to his very tolerant wife. On occasion he'll indulge in his never-ending work in progress -- a short story parody of Doyle's Great Detective who he has dubbed Sherbolt Houses (his partner is Dr. Tylersdad and housekeeper Mrs. Thames).  It's pure silliness and Norman knows it will probably never be published. Norman is in his mid sixties, a semi-retired ex-policeman, and happily married to a Beth who affectionately calls him Dad. Employed by Peerless Private Inquiry Agents, Ltd, Pink is passing his semi-retired life doing routine work mostly consisting of dreary and sordid divorce cases. But he has an obsession and it is this obsession that serves as the foundation of his first adventure in The Girl Nobody Knows (1965) by Mark McShane.

Years ago he was one of many who witnessed a horrific train wreck. Among the many victims was a young girl Norman had been watching prior to the crash. True to his policeman's instincts he had been wondering who she was, where she was going and why a 12 year old was on a train platform unaccompanied by any adult. When her body remains unclaimed after several days Norman saves her the ignominy of a potter's field burial by paying for her funeral and having a gravestone marking the site with "The Girl Nobody Knows" followed by the number 27 signifying her death statistic in the train wreck.

For the past twelve years Norman has been visiting the cemetery on the anniversary of the train wreck always alone, always seemingly the only person who cares about this anonymous girl. Until the day that opens this book when he chances upon another visitor at the girl's grave site. It's a woman dressed all in brown who seems oblivious to Norman's presence a few feet away. He approaches and gets close enough to see her face but she rushes away. In that brief moment Norman's policeman's training registers the woman's most telling feature -- she has one blue eye and one brown eye.

And so he begins his search for the drably dressed woman with an optical abnormality. With the aid of personal ads, clever role playing and some phone calls to eye doctors he comes up with a list of suitable women from which he begins the painstaking process of elimination until he quite by chance stumbles upon the cemetery visitor. Much to his surprise the woman played a small part in a case he had as a policeman many years ago. And slowly that case proves to be linked to the "Girl Nobody Knows."

This first outing is a real page turner. Pink is one of the most unusual private detectives I've ever encountered and his concern for the dead girl is at times heart wrenching. One night after a long night of searching and questioning Beth asks him, "You don't care too much, do you?" He asks what she means. "That we never had children." "I never even think about it," he assures here. They clasp hands and turn their attention to the TV. But the reader knows better. Norman has created an identity for the girl in the anonymous grave calling her Violette in honor of the color of the dress he last saw her wearing and imagines all sorts of possibilities for what her life was and could have been. He is determined to learn who she is so both he and the girl can finally have some peace.

Norman's second outing Night's Evil (1966) is as far removed in tone and subject matter as his first adventure. The story starts with a typical private eye opening: a wife wants to learn the truth about her husband's death. Elaine Bland hires Norman to find out why her husband Otis was visiting a carnival where he ended up stabbed to death. Strangely, she doesn't care who killed him. She want to know if he had been seeing another woman. She had suspicions about him for months and his violent end seems fitting to her. She only wants her suspicions proven or disproved. Norman first has to track down the location of the traveling carnival and then infiltrate the tightly knit world of its performers and employees.  Secretly he is also interested in finding out the identity of the murderer but he keeps that as close to himself as he did his relationship with Violette in the first book.

The group of primary suspects at the hyperbolically named Blegg's International Shows is quite a motley crew. From the belligerent owner Alfred Bleggs who has a lot of shady business deals he would rather not be discovered to the lonely dwarf Scurly Steeves, an ex-performer who has become the carnival's self-described PR agent, a job that is really no more than a sign painter and poster hanger. Scurly is secretly in love with the sexy young Molly, step-daughter to one of the amusement ride operators who has a dark secret all her own. She spends most of her time practicing knife throwing and earning a few extra shillings taking photographs of the customers then developing them in her makeshift photo lab in her family's tent.

There's also Charles Meek who shows up looking for work and a mystery woman named Carla.  Meek we soon learn is a former physician. Norman is curious why a well-to-do doctor would give up his career for the life of a carnival handyman who does nothing but fix faulty wiring and mend broken electrical sockets. Meek isn't talking. Carla seems to be the reason he stays on at the carnival yet no one has heard of the woman, let alone seen her. Like all the others Meek has a terrible secret, perhaps the scariest part of the book is when Norman learns the truth about this very mysterious man.

Rounding out the crew is Rosa, the gypsy fortune teller who seems to have a genuine knack for seeing into the future. Her visions of a hellish doom will have an eerie resonance in the cinematically rendered climax.

Because this story is confined to a small group of suspects who rarely leave the grounds of the carnival I found it less engaging than The Girl Nobody Knows. McShane creates some mystery in slowly revealing the secret lives of these troubled people but the overall mystery of who killed Otis Bland never seems to have any urgency or importance. Norman is more intrigued by the odd behavior of Charles Meek, the constant lying of the others and the shifty business practices of Bleggs. It's only in the final thirty or so pages that the book becomes exciting. McShane abandons his wishy-washy psychological suspense and transforms the story into a Grand Guignol revenge scheme gone haywire. The solution to the murder comes quite by accident amid a flurry of flying knives, smoke and fire, and hysterics from a trio of characters.

1st US Edition, Doubleday Crime Club (1966)
The final novel in this trilogy is The Way to Nowhere. It's pretty darn scarce. It was not published in the US making it all that more hard to find. My attempt to find an affordable copy failed miserably.  I have no idea what the book is about as I also failed to find any newspaper or magazine reviews of the book.  Maybe one of you lucky enough to live in the UK or Canada might find it in a local library.

The first book is definitely worth reading. If you like Norman enough you may want to move onto the second title to see a new side of him. Both titles were published in the US and UK and both received paperback reprints in the US. If nothing else Night's Evil gives you a few more silly paragraphs from Norman's ongoing Sherbolt Houses story.  That at least will bring you a smile or a chuckle or two. It certainly made Norman laugh.

The Norman Pink Trilogy
The Girl Nobody Knows (1965)
Night's Evil (1966)
The Way to Nowhere (1967)


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Reading Challenge Update: Silver Age Bingo space S6 "Book with professional detective" and
Silver Age Bingo space I5 "Book with spooky title"

13 comments:

  1. As I was reading this post I thought how nice it would be to discover someone was publishing the three books, either between a single set of covers or as three books, but no. Though it sounds like this first book may be the best of the two you read, and so perhaps the best of the three as well.

    Thanks as always for another interesting look at a book I'd surely not encounter elsewhere.

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  2. It is maddening that his stuff can be so hard to find - his two SEANCE books (three if you include the unrelated one as Marc Lovell) are I suppose still the easiest to get hold of? Really must find The Girl Nobody Knows - thanks chum.

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    1. Any time I find one of his books in a paperback reprint I buy it. They're hard to find in any edition, but assiduous searching will turn up some of the scarce titles. Some of the books he wrote under the "Marc Lovell" pen name are too somber and "unreadable" for me. I never finished THE IMITATION THIEVES. And that one was supposed to be funny!

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  3. Very interesting post, John. This is totally new to me. Strange that the first and second books are so different.

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  4. Thanks for this post, John. I have the first two books, the same as you, and have never been tempted to read them. I didn't even realize they were a series. Now I am tempted, and more than that, I will -- read them, that is -- once I find them, of course.

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    1. Norman Pink was not written up at the Thrilling Detective website, but I think he soon will have his own page. I sent Kevin Burton Smith an email and coincidentally he had recently been poring over my essays tagged "private eye" and liked a lot of what he read. Apparently he was going to send me an email the very same day to ask if I'd allow some of my posts to be used as features. How about that?

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  5. A 1st ed. of The Way to Nowhere is available to a high bidder on Ebay right now:
    http://www.ebay.com/itm/MARK-MCSHANE-THE-WAY-TO-NOWHERE-1ST-ED-HC-DJ-/121571198874?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_2&hash=item1c4e35479a

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    1. Thanks for the heads up. I placed a bid knowing that the auction would last 10 days and just crossed my fingers. But I just got an email telling me that I won! The seller must be one of those people that ends the auction on the first bid. Now it's mine. Woo-hoo!

      This isn't the first time a book I've written about was offered for sale on eBay. I know of four different sellers who regularly put up titles I write about. A copy of NIGHTMARE COTTAGE by G M WIlson is still for sale. It appeared last year on the eBay.co.uk site for the first time back in November. I'm surprised no has bought it yet. It's a great little mystery by a writer whose books are very hard to find. I suggest someone go over to ebay right now and buy it. Only £3.99 and free shipping if you live in the UK! He sells to US residents too and shipping is reasonable.

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  6. Thanks for another introduction to another unknown, John. :) I have so much on my reading plate right now that I'm not sure if or when I'd get around to reading Mark McShane, but I will definitely and obediently add the titles to my Master Vintage TBR List. I do enjoy your enthusiasm re: this author and others you've introduced me to.

    P.S. By the generosity of a good friend, I finally have a Kindle - watch out world!! Have several vintage reads lined up - a couple recommended by you, I think. Me and a Kindle - a very dangerous combo. Ha!

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    1. You might try your library for titles by Mark McShane. I recommend SEANCE (also called SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON) which I wrote about several years ago. Also THE CRIMSON MADNESS OF LITTLE DOOM and ILL MET BY A FISH SHOP ON GEORGE STREET are very good. Some of his supernatural thrillers are good too.

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  7. Well,John, the ebay book referred to by Deadman is first edition and available with DJ ! I am sure you will go for it !

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    1. I did and remarkably the seller ended the auction with only one bid. It's mine!

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  8. That first book sounds so very good, John. Sigh. Like Yvette, I am obediently adding it to the TBF list...as if I really need more books (she says as glances at the TBR mountain range lining the wall down the hallway....).

    And what tremendous luck for you...The Way to Nowhere showing up on Ebay and you the winner!

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