Frank Kane (1912-1968) was mystery author best known for his popular Johnny Liddell series of private detective tales. The character began his fictional career in 1944 with short stories in “Crack Detective Magazine” which evolved into 30 novel-length mysteries spanning through 1967 while the short story output never stopped. I decided to dive into the Liddell series with his fifth novel, “Dead Weight” from 1951 - largely because the alluring cover art.
Liddell is a stereotypical New York private eye with a smoked-glass office door and a sassy redheaded secretary. One day an elderly Oriental (remember: 1951) man visits Liddell with an interesting proposition. In exchange for $100, Liddell will safely store a package for the client, and return it when asked - no matter when the request is made. Neither Liddell nor the reader get to know the contents of the package when he agrees to this engagement.
Within a few hours of Liddell taking possession of the package, federal agents show up as his office with a warrant and seize it. Liddell sets off to identify and locate and notify his client (“the chink” - again: 1951) in Chinatown. Upon finding the client’s flophouse, Liddell enters the room and finds that the old man has been tortured and murdered in a particularly brutal fashion.
Things get even more interesting when it turns out that the men who confiscated the package weren’t actually feds, and the warrant they produced was a phony. Someone is trying to use Liddell as a patsy, and he’s not letting go of the case until he gets to the bottom of it. This is a great setup for a P.I. mystery. Can the author deliver a worthwhile, action-packed investigation and satisfying solution for the reader?
Not really. It was a decent private eye novel, but no one will ever confuse “Dead Weight” as being a classic of the genre. Liddell and his sidekick, a foxy newspaperwoman named Muggsy, follow a winding and convoluted route through the ins-and-outs of Chinese organized crime. The mystery’s final solution contains a national security curveball that I never saw coming, but that doesn’t make it particularly satisfying. Overall, I’d say that the novel failed to live up to the promise of the excellent opening chapters. As a reader, you deserve more.
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