“The Case of the Laughing Virgin” by Jonathan Craig (real name: Frank E. Smith) is the eighth mystery-adventure starring NYPD Detective Pete Selby and his partner, Stan Rayder. The paperback was originally released by Fawcett Gold Medal in 1960 with a cheeky, swinging cover and was re-released in April 1974 by Belmont Tower as #6 in the “Sixth Precinct” series with a decidedly more menacing illustration.
There’s really no reason to tie yourself into knots trying to reading the series sequentially - particularly since the 1970s publisher couldn’t figure out the proper order anyway. This short installment begins with Selby (our narrator) and Rayder pulling a hysterical naked girl down from the roof of a Greenwich Village brownstone - only to discover her dead lover inside the apartment with three bullet holes in his chest. Did the naked lady plug her boyfriend? Sometimes in life it’s that easy but rarely in crime fiction.
Selby and Rayder logically put the pieces of what unfolded at the apartment together to generate logical leads in the case. It’s a pure police procedural and the paperback follows the course of the investigation with a brisk pace that is seldom boring. Also, sex is humming in the background of nearly every scene but no one seems to get laid here.
Over the course of 160 pages, the author does a great job of making 1960 New York City come alive, particularly when the investigation leads the police into the world of underground stag film production and sex clubs. Moreover, the interplay between the two police partners is pure gold. The problem is that this novel isn’t particularly exciting. It’s a serviceable police procedural where Selby and Rayder go from interview to interview running down logical leads. There was really nothing to grab the reader in a story about two honest cops doing their jobs very well.
I’m not giving up on this series. I regard Jonathan Craig as an unsung master of crime fiction, and I know he can do better. If you dive into the Pete Selby Sixth Precinct series, start with a different installment. For me, this one failed to deliver.
We have a Jonathan Craig feature on our third episode of the Paperback Warrior Podcast.
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