The 1954 stand-alone novel “Alley Girl” by Jonathan Craig (real name: Frank Smith) was re-released in 1959 as “Renegade Cop.” I suspect that the book was written and published following the success of Jim Thompson’s 1952 masterpiece, “The Killer Inside Me”, as both novels feature sociopath cop protagonists.
The main character of “Alley Girl” is highly-regarded Detective-Lieutenant Steve Lambert, and the first time we meet him he is pounding whiskey before his morning shift while the naked 18 year-old he’s been banging is haranguing him about his bad habits.
The central mystery of the novel concerns Tommy Nolan who may or may not have killed somebody in a whiskey blackout. Detective Lambert is working the case and promised Tommy’s hot wife that he’d keep Tommy out of the electric chair if she sleeps with him. Classy guy, right? Meanwhile, someone else wants to make sure that Tommy is convicted for the crime and is willing to pay Lambert a ton of cash to make sure that happens. The detective has no ethical qualms about this conflict of interest and appears personally uninterested in the truth behind the allegations against Tommy.
Meanwhile, a good and honorable cop named Dave Kimberly wants to solve the murder for all the right reasons. His cop instincts won’t let him mind his own business and allow Lambert to work the case without the scrutiny of an honest colleague. Dave’s character is a ray of light in this novel filled with ill-will and corruption. Dave’s quest for the truth makes this crime novel a straight-up whodunnit mystery with a satisfying conclusion.
Lambert is a reprehensible protagonist, and you need to be comfortable with that fact to make it through this short paperback. He feels like a 1950s prototype for the Vic Mackey character on the TV show, The Shield - a talented cop with no moral compass. If you can stomach spending so much time with a villainous main character who forces another man’s wife into depraved, coercive sex, you’ll find a pretty compelling police procedural here. I’m embarrassed to say that I enjoyed this book a lot. You might as well if you’re a twisted soul.
A couple postscripts:
The title “Alley Girl” makes no sense, and was likely the idea of someone at Lion Books rather than the author. There’s no obvious Alley Girl in the whole book. There’s a secondary female character of humble beginnings who could arguably be the Alley Girl, but naming the novel after her doesn’t add up. Blame the publisher. As a title, the 1959 Diamond Books re-release as “Renegade Cop” makes more sense even if it shows an utter poverty of imagination.
Jonathan Craig also wrote a bunch of police procedural novels called the '6th Precinct' series. The paperbacks spanned ten installments between 1955 and 1966. At first glance, it would seem that the series was trying to capitalize on the popularity of Ed McBain’s '87th Precinct' series, but Craig actually beat McBain to the punch by a full year. The '6th Precinct' novels follow two NYPD detectives - Pete Selby and Stan Rayder - through a series of murders that always seems to start with the discovery of a dead, nude woman. Craig’s series never saw the commercial success of McBain’s (both were inspired by “Dragnet”, it seems), but Craig was a solid talent and the books seem to be worth a shot. For what it’s worth, the late Bill Crider loved them, and the never-late Paul Bishop was lukewarm on the '6th Precinct'. I intend to break the tie and get back to you.
We have a feature on Jonathan Craig on the third episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast.
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