Litchfield Reviews Tall, Dark and Dead by Kermit Jaediker, The Savage Chase by Frederick Lorenz, and Run the Wild River by D.L. Champion

Tall, Dark and Dead / The Savage Chase / Run the Wild River

Blackmail and murder, the abduction of a compulsive gambler, and a crook’s ambition to control the trafficking of ‘wetbacks’ across the U.S. border are among the trio of gritty tales first published in paperback by Lion Books in the 1950s and reprinted in this classic noir collection.

Originally published in hardback by Mystery House in 1947, and later reprinted by Lion Books, the quick-paced, breezy detective story, Tall, Dark and Dead, was penned by American crime reporter Kermit Jaediker, who died in 1986.

Jaediker, a columnist for the New York Daily News for 35 years, was a regular contributor to the Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate. Aside from true crime stories in venues like The Orlando Sentinel and The New York Times, he worked as a comic books writer and colourist and authored two novels.

This, his debut, which is heavy on action and plot, but leavened by dry humour and zestful dialogue, is a forgotten Forties pulp detective story that concerns a slimy gossip columnist, Erskine Spalding, who is blackmailing a beautiful, wealthy socialite, Tina Van Lube, whom he’s had an affair with behind her husband’s back.

Although Tina has pawned her jewellery to pay him, the greedy Spalding wants more, and so she hires an avaricious ex-cop turned private eye, Lou Lait, ‘whose reputation can be best described as dubious,’ to retrieve her incriminating love letters from Spalding’s safe.

Lou knows the ideal man for the job – his buddy, Willie J. Flick, ‘a picker of locks’ and, in Willie’s estimation, ‘the leading escape artist of the American stage.’

However, when Lait breaks into Spalding’s house to check on Willie’s progress, he finds his friend in ‘a drunken stupor,’ the safe expertly opened with a burglar’s tools but containing no letters, and ‘a trail of blood’ leading from the snoring figure of Willie right up to the dead body of Spalding.

Lait’s concerns about protecting his client and trying to explain his illegal entry into Spalding’s house outweighs his civic duty, and he departs the house before the police arrive, having been unable to rouse Willie from sleep.

Although unwilling to admit to the authorities his close connection to the safecracker, the reward money for information leading to the capture of the murderer persuades Lait to help in finding the culprit.

Unfortunately, it turns out to be a highly dangerous investigation involving a long list of suspects that include Tina’s disfigured husband, her hot-headed brother, a disgruntled butler, a dubious gun-running Colonel, and a dancer who may be ‘a secret agent’ for a subversive group of Latin-American revolutionists.

The second story, The Savage Chase, which was written in 1954 by the late Lawrence Heller, a prolific American novelist and screenwriter who used the pseudonym Frederick Lorenz, is an unusual thriller about a rich, notorious gambler, Ralph Stallings, who becomes a hot target for vicious, money-hungry hoodlums in New Jersey.

Rumour has it that Stallings, an obsessive gambler who often loses big, has blown a million dollars at cards in the past, and when he’s in a drunken, reckless mood, he doesn’t stop gambling until he’s down to his last Cadillac.

After a particularly heavy night on the town, the inebriated Stallings passes out in the back of a taxi and the driver, having offloaded him at a hotel, sells this intelligence to Lee Mayo, a professional gambler.

The information subsequently gets passed around town like a bookmaker’s tip, with every lowlife around keen to get hold of Stallings so they can sell him into a card game with the gambler and mobster Ernie Wiles.

This absorbing, if outlandish crime tale is aided by strong dialogue and interesting characters, but marred by a contrived, bloody climax.

The final story, Run the Wild River, which is the best of the three, was a Lion Books original, written by the late D’Arcy Lyndon Champion, a writer from Melbourne who wrote under the name D.L. Champion.

Throughout the 1930s and 40, Champion was a regular contributor to leading popular magazines like Detective Fiction Weekly, Black Mask, Dime Detective, and Thrilling Detective, and originated the famous pulp action hero ‘The Phantom Detective,’ which was later serialized on radio.

This 1952 noir novel, which is Champion’s last known work, is a compelling, hard-boiled tale of the rise and fall of Bill Ackroyd, a hardened, ruthless small-time crook with an insatiable lust for money and power.

After being run out of Juarez and El Paso on the same day for ‘running a crooked dice game,’ he winds up broke and destitute in the Mexican town of Reynaldo.

It isn’t long before he’s back on his feet, negotiating his way into a job as a human trafficker, leading hundreds of poor, desperate Mexicans across the Rio Grande to work for ‘a dime an hour’ for ranchers in Texas, Arizona, and New Mexico.

Ackroyd’s absolute determination to become the kingpin of the border running operation, combined with his lack of discretion and diplomacy, ultimately leads to his downfall.

It’s a testament to Champion’s fine writing that the reader cares about the fate of the despicable, unsympathetic, perpetually scheming narrator and the villainous characters around him. Engrossing from the first page to the last, Run the Wild River makes a welcome return to print.