The Hotel Dick

THE HOTEL DICK is a new mystery set in Milwaukee in the late 1940s. The author is and isn’t Axel Brand. Is, because that’s the name on the title page. Isn’t, because the name is a pseudonym for someone who’s written, we’re told, about 60 novels. A credit on the verso reads “Published in 2008 in conjunction with Tekno Books and Ed Gorman.” Tekno Books is the baby of anthologist supreme Martin H. Greenberg, with whom Gorman has edited several volumes of YEAR’S BEST CRIME AND MYSTERY STORIES.

Look, the thing of it is that whether or not Gorman is the author, the book is well-written enough to have come from him, which, I guess, is what really matters. I certainly mean it as a compliment. The lead character, police Lt. Joe Sonntag, is a Gorman-esque working class cop who thinks his job is important, gets along pretty well with the rest of the guys in blue, has a good relationship with his wife, and is a solid, get-it-done kind of Midwesterner who stays on a case until he cracks the damn thing.

The plot’s awash in the kind of gentle nostalgia Gorman has made his own in his Sam McCain series. With McCain, it’s ‘50s rock ’n’roll; with Sonntag, at least in this initial investigation, it’s movie stars.

J. Adam Bark is the title character, the house detective at Milwaukee’s Lakeshore Towers, a “flossy hotel.” While sitting comfortably in a barber chair one day, Bark is shot at close range through the mouth and heart by Spencer Tracy, who scoots out the door before the befuddled barber can get his eyeballs back into his head, à la Tex Avery.

Spencer Tracy? Really? Doesn’t seem likely, until Greer Garson and Veronica Lake also chew on some bullets a few days later. Yeah, in Milwaukee.

Sonntag can’t think of any reason for Garson and Lake to get plugged, but Bark is another story. This is a fella who took his job as a hotel dick very seriously and liked nothing more than busting into rented rooms with a cop and a photographer in tow when he suspected some illicit cohabitating was going on. In one case, the embarrassed couple still had their clothes on and were sitting on separate beds, but the morality laws were so stringent, they pled “no contest” and paid the fine just to keep their names out of the papers. A little of that kind of thing pulled on the wrong party could result in a big ol’ bag of hatred to carry around. Could one of Bark’s victims have killed him?

Sonntag is certainly not a hard-boiled copper, but the book has the hard-boiled disregard for planting fair-play clues for readers to follow. Brand doesn’t play peek-a-boo with us —he lets us know what Sonntag knows, when he knows it. The gallery of characters is entertaining, and most of them, like Sonntag, are decent Midwesterners driven by linked urges to help out however they can and, when they can’t help, mind their own business.

THE HOTEL DICK isn’t spectacular, but I don’t think it’s intended to be. It’s solid and familiar — the kind of crime novel that would have been comfortable on a drugstore spin rack 50 years ago, and that makes you look forward to a sequel.

Hey, here’s an idea: Sonntag’s sharp-as-a-tack wife Lizbeth develops a hankering to get into the detective business herself, and at the end of the book, the Lakeshore Towers still hasn’t replaced their deceased hotel dick … —Doug Bentin

Buy it at Amazon.

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Comment by Bill Crider
2008-12-03 09:25:43

It ain’t Ed. The writer’s well known for his novels in a different genre.

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Comment by Doug Bentin
2008-12-03 14:32:21

Well this one is damn good, is what I say. I know it can’t be you, Bill, because your crime novels are well known. You write a good western, too–are we ever going to see another one from you?

Comment by Bill Crider
2008-12-03 16:50:57

Thanks, but the western market doesn’t seem to be clamoring for books by me. There are some out there, but not under my name and in fact, if I told you what they were, I’d have to kill you. That is, if I could get to you before others killed me first. And, no, I didn’t write THE HOTEL DICK. I did review it on my blog a while back. I don’t know if the writer wants to remain anonymous or not, but until I do, it’s better that I keep quiet on that subject.

Comment by Richard S. Wheeler
2008-12-03 19:42:19

I’ll fess up. Who done it? I done it. It’s so hard to switch genres, especially from western to anything else, that I thought to see whether I could garner a few good reviews first. I did get the fine reviews I hoped for: Kirkus and PW, Crider, Lee Goldberg, and now Bookgasm, so there’s no need to stay under wraps. I grew up with Joe Friday and Dragnet on flickering black and white TVs, and in Milwaukee, too, so it was fun to put all that together, a 1940s cop, streetcars, a big, grimy industrial town with a church on every other corner. Thank you all for your kind reviews. This has been a delight for an author heading into his mid-70s.

Comment by Richard S. Wheeler
2008-12-03 19:51:05

Let me add that the book came to be published through the great kindness and generosity of Ed Gorman, who helped me through a bad moment in my writing life. He is a splendid writer and a true bookman. I’ve read all of his McCain novels, which turned my wife and me into permanent Gorman fans. I am in his debt.

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Comment by David
2008-12-03 20:03:34

I think the book is written by non other E. Howard Hunt of Watergate fame.

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Comment by Rod
2008-12-04 07:44:35

The Hunt one is HOUSE DICK, coming soon from Hard Case Crime.

Comment by Bill Crider
2008-12-04 09:28:02

Glad to see that Richard ‘fessed up to being the author of this fine book.

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