Friday, April 08, 2011

Book Review: The Eighth Circle

Stanley Ellin
Awards: Edgar
Rating: ★ ★ ★ – –

The cover of the 1959 paperback edition of this book makes it look like a trashy piece of pulp fiction. It has a drawing of the main character, handsome private detective Murray Kirk, being leaned on by a lovely young lady who is half out of her satin dinner dress and matching heels. A block of text next to the pair describes the book as “a story about the special world of a private detective.”

But it’s actually a perfectly decent detective story.

And, as far as I could tell, Kirk never actually sleeps with any of the ladies he runs across. Not one. Oh, sure, one falls asleep on the rug in front of his fireplace and stays the night there, and he has to help another off with rain-soaked clothes and warm her up in his shower to prevent her from passing out from the cold, and there is certainly a lot of racy talk and innuendo, but no major hanky-panky.

And not only that, but the case doesn’t revolve around a murder; it’s just a book-keeping scandal. And I think only one or two of the bad guys even has a gun.

What happens is that Kirk, who runs a successful detective agency in New York, gets personally involved in a minor case, the arrest of a policeman accused of taking payoffs, because he’s madly in love with the cop’s fiancée. He’s hired by the cop’s lawyer to dig up information that will prove his client’s innocence, but he actually hopes that his client is guilty so the fiancée will call it off and go out with him instead. Of course the case gets extremely complicated and pulls in plenty of characters from both high society and the unsavory underworld.

While it wasn’t fantastic, it was generally a well put-together, mostly page-turning mystery. It definitely stayed true to its genre and vintage; I wouldn’t read this book expecting anything unusual or stereotype-flouting.

For the most part, I liked Kirk. He doesn’t always guess right about clues and certainly has bad days. He’s no-nonsense and savvy but not quite as hard-boiled and gruff as, say, Philip Marlowe. He’s a little slicker than that. He’s also relatively kind to the women in his life (for a 1950s P.I.).

The men, both good and bad, are pretty well developed characters. The women, on the other hand, are completely one-dimensional. Each one is absolutely beautiful and in dire need of his help except for his (naturally) super-efficient, loyal, middle-aged secretary (who used to be absolutely beautiful).

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