Monday, June 25, 2018

The Longest Second

Former radio script-writer Bill Ballinger wrote around 30 novels in his career in the crime and espionage genres. His 1957 release, “The Longest Second,” was nominated for an Edgar Award for Best Mystery Novel and has found new life as a re-release from Stark House Books, packaged as a double along with Ballinger’s “Portrait in Stone” from 1950.

“The Longest Second” relies on a literary trope - an amnesia victim tries to learn his own mysterious history - that may have been fresh back in the day. In this case, our hero is Vic Pacific (awesome hero name, by the way) who awakens in a hospital bed recovering from a slit throat rendering him mute combined with significant memory loss. Bad guys are evidently trying to finish the job, and Vic isn’t ready to roll over for their cause.

Ballinger does a nice job of conveying the terror and frustration Vic feels upon waking up in a hospital bed with all memories just beyond his grasp. The narration toggles between Vic’s first-person storytelling and short chapters told from the perspective of the police detectives trying to solve the slit throat mystery. POV changes in short novels can be irritating if not handled well, but by 1957 Ballinger was a a solid writer who pulls off the toggling of perspectives quite adeptly.

After Vic is discharged from the hospital with no voice or memory, he is befriended by an attractive woman with an even sexier roommate who gives Vic a place to stay with meager employment while he works on the mystery of his own identity. As Vic heals, clues present themselves from the recesses of his mind with the most perplexing being: Why does Vic have a basic working knowledge of the Arabic language?

The success or failure of a book like this rests almost entirely on how satisfying the Big Reveal is regarding the main character’s identity. The reveal comes at the end of the novel, and I found the punch-line pretty underwhelming. Many chapters of plodding, by-the-numbers investigative work lead the reader to an improbable, ho-hum solution presented as a shocking final sentence twist ending.

There’s nothing wrong with Ballinger’s writing style, but this one was all set-up with a lackluster payoff. Your time is better spent elsewhere. Get a copy of the book at https://amzn.to/2JQWFlX.