"Television has brought back murder into the home – where it belongs"- Alfred Hitchcock.
Yesterday, I had one of those lazy days, whose hours were entirely at my disposal to be wasted as I saw fit, and without any intrusions from other carbon-based life forms or anything of actual importance to do it was inevitable that I ended up pulling William DeAndrea's Killed in the Ratings (1978) from my congested shelves – and the book neatly ties-in with the previous, sloppily scribbled, review I posted only a few days ago.
William DeAndrea's Killed in the Ratings and Herbert Resnicow's The Gold Solution (1983) were both bestowed with a nomination for a prestigious Edgar award in the category of Best First Novel, but it was DeAndrea who walked away clutching the coveted statuette to his chest – and having read these narratives back-to-back it became apparent to me why Resnicow was unable to cash in his nominee in exchange for a bust of the father of the detective story. The Gold Solution is an entertaining and diverting read, showing plenty of zest and imagination, but also displays a still inexperienced writer who was testing the waters of the mystery genre. DeAndrea, on the other hand, seemed thoroughly comfortable within the genre in his debut – even though the plot was still rough around the edges.
Killed in the Ratings formally introduces the readers to Matt Cobb, a corporate trouble shooter in the employ of a television network and attached to Special Projects, in which he handles everything that's too ticklish for security and too nasty for public relations, but in his first outing he has not yet earned his promotion to vice-president and the full responsibility of their dirt-sheet cover-up division – and as the events unfolded in this book I became, more and more, curious how the heck he survived this case to rise through the ranks of the networks. DeAndrea threw everything at him, from a phony murder rap that looms over his head like the Sword of Damocles to a band of mobsters stalking his every move, and he handled it all!
The trouble begins when Matt Cobb receives an uptight telephone call from a man who implores to rendezvous with him at a dingy, second-rate hotel, to discuss matters that will proof to be ruinous to the network and network television in general or else he will spill his story to the FBI, but it takes the name of his ex-girlfriend to agree to the meeting – and I think even the most unseasoned reader of detective stories can guess what happens next. Upon entering the grubby hotel room, Cobb stumbles over the body of a man, with an uncomfortable looking switch-blade stuck in his back, and is clobbered from behind with an ashtray – leaving him with more than he can explain to the cops when it's their turn to come busting through the door.
Making your protagonist one of the prime-suspects has long since ceased to be a revolutionary plot device, but in the able hands of a gifted artist there still is fun to be have with that ploy and I can envisage DeAndrea smirking as he came up with another disastrous plot twist to drag Cobb even deeper into a catastrophic quagmire. The reason why he wasn't charged on the spot is that he had a reasonably acceptable story to tell them and the fact that the homicide detective in charge is a close friend to his family, but the first antagonist he faces in this story is a Second Grade Detective who sees in him an easy collar to polish up his résumé – and he feels strengthened in his precipitate conclusion after uncovering that the blood-spattered stiff on the floor is the ex-husband who whisked away his ex-girlfriend to make her his wife. Cobb didn't help his case, either, by spending an hour at her apartment after the murder.
But wait, it gets better! In between several botched attempts on his life, he also has to shake off an unscrupulous agitator and his henchmen who shares the detective's conviction of his guilt and holds him personal responsible for missing out on a big chunk of potential revenue – giving the plot more of a hardboiled edge than the later entries in this series. The story gets really violent at one point and I wonder if DeAndrea hadn't fully made up his mind at this point whether he should lean more to the tough, hard-bitten gumshoes or embrace the orthodox, puzzle-orientated approach, but when it was time to wrap-up all the loose-ends, during a William Powell-type dénouement, he had branded, what would become, in the succeeding years, his trademark on this book – equating hardboiled story telling with a conventional, intricately constructed plot and not afraid to crack a joke at his own expense. One of my favorite scenes in the book comes when Cobb is forced to hitch a ride from two gangsters, at gunpoint, to meet their employer while they exchange cutesy insults and acting very much like stereotypical gumshoe/mobsters – at which Cobb reflects that they must have watched the same movies when growing up.
That's William DeAndrea for you! He was well aware that his types of books didn't really require him to gaze too deeply into the human psyche and find the words needed to describe its dreary scenery, but that instead he could pull his readers into a parallel world where he could thrill, baffle or merely make people laugh – and that is, for the most part, enough for me. But just to show-off that he was better than most of his contemporaries in the field he made a social comment on racism and renounced it in a few, effective sentences when it would've taken most writers a couple of hundred pages. The mob-boss in this book is a Jew with a nasty personality and this elicits a comment from the homicide cop, who's doing his best to pin a murder charge on our trouble shooter, at which Cobb muses that it takes only one bad apple to confirm the stereotype and give people the excuse needed to be racist. Great huh? Cobb repudiates both the behavior of the self-styled Godfather and the attitude of the one-track cop without delving into unresolved childhood trauma's! These books should be required reading for everyone who wants to be a published author of crime books.
There are, however, two minor blotches that mar the overall quality of the book. The first speck is that I anticipated part of the solution because it was alluded to in one of the later stories, Killed on the Rocks (1990), but that's hardly a valid complaint when judging this book. The second problem is that one of the plot threads, concerning a key player, wasn't fairly clued and most of the revelatory information, hinting at part of the motive, was withheld from the reader until the final moment, but it's such a rich and complicated plot that's easy to overlook this single oversight and I'm very lenient when it comes to first efforts at crafting a detective story – so I'm going ahead and give this one full marks!
On a final note, I want to say that the next review here will be one in the series of foreign mysteries. But I haven't decided whether to go with a modern or a classic one. One of these days, these luxury problems will drive me sane again!