I came to Leslie White's Homicide by way of the Black Lizard Book of Pulps, or as I like to call it, "the Bible of Awesome." White's short story "The City of Hell" was...well, it was like a caper/heist flick mixed with Red Harvest and written on an ultimately wholesome bender. Sure, some yeggs get new buttonholes in their coats, and there is much talk of rats devouring certain characters' faces, but our heroes don't drink that much and won't let the family men in the group take the real risks. I quickly flipped to the little author blurb to discover that Mr. White also wrote novels, Homicide and Harness Bull (the basis for the film Vice Squad, in which Edward G. Robinson plays the cop for a change) among them. He also wrote Me, Detective in which he presents his own take on the Doheny murder case, having worked it as an investigator for the Los Angeles District Attorney's office.
Me, Detective was clearly the book I had to read for this week's Zombie Summer Reading.
Well, sometimes you brain the zombies and sometimes the zombies eat you. Me, Detective only made it through the first edition and is thus a little pricey if you can find a copy, and the reference copy at the library was A.W.O.L.
Homicide nevertheless made a dandy substitute: burglary cop Steve Muttersbach is detailed into a murder investigation when a nightclub owner/lady of ill-repute is found strangled in her coupe, shortly after he investigates a break-in at her apartment.
Sure, it's a little hacky. The prose is nothing to write home about, the plot is a parlor mystery in hardboiled clothing, and it lacks the inspired lunacy of "The City of Hell."
But what it lacks in style it makes up for in concept: the chapters are a series of letters and telegrams from our clearly-out-of-his-depth hero to a retired Homicide Detective buddy, with interview transcripts, police reports, and newspaper clippings attached. (Someday, somewhere, a graduate student will use the novel as evidence that postmodernism was blossoming in the pulps before it ever hit the academic presses.)
And there's something charming about Muttersbach, a cop whose chance to step up to the show came a few years too late but who nevertheless dives into the investigation like a catcher with bad knees and one last shot at the pennant.* The comic subplots involving a flirty tabloid reporter, Muttersbach's increasingly estranged relationship with his wife, and the indignities visited upon our hapless flatfoot by his superiors when he roughs up a politically connected suspect, also liven up the proceedings considerably.
All in all, Homicide reads like the source material for what could have been an excellent Warner Brothers B-picture, which I guess is kind of what it is. It's not a lost classic by any means, but it reminds me of a number of records by local bands that never really went anywhere: the production isn't so great, the songs aren't all quite there yet, and they should never have let the bass player sing on that one track. But it's quirky and odd, and clearly a labor of love by a talented amateur, and - despite what Harlan Ellison thinks - it's evidence that "not very good" can be worthwhile in its own right, if it's done with care.
* Why yes, I did enjoy Major League when I was a kid.