Thursday, January 31, 2019

Classification Homicide

In February 1955, “Classification: Homicide” began its publication history as the first of Jonathan Craig’s ‘Police File’ stories featured in Manhunt magazine. In 2016, the story was repackaged for the first time in paperback by Armchair Fiction as the B-Side of a double along with Dexter St. Clare’s “Saratoga Mantrap.” In it’s trade paperback incarnation, Craig’s “full novel” weighs in at 76-pages for a quick, breezy, and enjoyable read.

Before the review, some historical context:

In the 1950s, “Manhunt” magazine was the premier digest for hardboiled crime and mystery stories. For 35 cents, a reader would get a full novel (really a novella by today’s standards) and a handful of short stories by America’s top genre writers. It was quite a bargain and provided a ton of quality reading each month for a nice price. Because of Manhunt’s important place in America’s literary history, copies of the magazine are scarce today and worth a small fortune to collectors.

Jonathan Craig (real name: Frank E. Smith) wrote a series of seven short novels and short stories that were published in Manhunt between February 1955 and January 1956 tagged as the ‘Police File’ series. My theory is that the ‘Police File’ stories served as a literary precursor to Craig’s ‘Pete Selby & Stan Rayder’ police procedurals originally published by Fawcett Gold Medal starting in November 1955 and later repackaged by Belmont Tower in the 1970s as the ‘Sixth Precinct’ series - likely to capitalize on the success of Ed McBain’s bestselling ‘87th Precinct’ books.

And now the book review:

NYPD 20th Precinct detectives Steve Manning and his partner are called upon to investigate the stabbing death of a young woman whose body is discovered on the roof of a nine-story building on 69th Street. Manning is our narrator, and he follows all the logical steps one would expect to identify the victim and further learn what occurred.

Through canvassing neighbors in the apartment building, Manning learns that the deceased was a resident of the building and struggling fashion model and that she used to date a guy down the hall. In fact, her ex is the one who found her on the roof. A suspect, perhaps? Now we’re getting somewhere! Unfortunately, it’s never that easy.

The police procedural storytelling approach employed by the author owes a lot to the “Dragnet” TV show which premiered four years earlier in 1951. It’s an emotionless style driven by proven investigative methodology and professionalism rather than the overwrought emotionalism popular today. There’s none of this “I’m trying to stay objective, Sarge, but I just care too damn much!” bullshit in a ‘Police File’ story. Realism is the selling point.

That's not to say that Manning is without personality. In his narration, he takes the time to provide the reader with tips about best practices, conventional wisdom, and generalities about what cops know that seem credible, reasonable, and helpful to a lay reader. He also shows real compassion to witnesses and suspects who’ve gotten tough breaks in life.

The mystery takes us through the medical examiner’s conclusions, the lab team’s processing of the crime scene, and interviews of witnesses and suspects. But because this was a 1950s story, all this is done with a keen efficiency, and the reader never has time to get bored or mired in the minutiae of forensic details. “Classification: Homicide” moves forward without unnecessary diversions, and the mystery’s solution springs solely from the narrator’s own wits.

It’s not an action novel, though - it’s a straight-up mystery with clues, suspects, and lucky breaks. The cops and suspects were all great characters, and the solution at the end is satisfying and unambiguous. There was really nothing not to like about this well-written little mystery. In fact, I’m excited to one day read the other stories in this series. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done.

Further Reading:

It seems that “Classification: Homicide” is the only ‘Police File’ story to be converted to paperback as of this writing. Nevertheless, here are the ‘Police File’ stories in order, and the months they appeared in Manhunt:

“Classification:Homicide” - February 1955

“The Punisher” - March 1955

“The Babystiier” - July 1955

“Cast Off” - September 1955

“The Spoilers” - October 1955

“The Man Between” - November 1955

“The Cheater” - January 1956

Without spending a mint on old copies of Manhunt, it’s unlikely that I’ll ever get to read about the further adventures of Detective Manning and his crew. I’m really hoping that some enterprising eBook entrepreneur will rescue these orphaned works from the dustbin of history and release them all in one, affordable volume. If that happens, they can count me in as a customer.

Jonathan Craig and the Police File series is on the third episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast.

Buy a copy of the book HERE 

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