Before becoming involved in mail order scams, Milton Ozaki was an accomplished writer of crime and mystery novels under his own name as well as the pseudonym of Robert O. Saber. The Japanese-American author lived in the upper Midwest, and several of his novels are set in the fictional town of Stillwell, Wisconsin, including his 1960 Fawcett Gold Medal original, “Inquest,” now available as a Kindle eBook.
The concept of the novel is that Ozaki wrote this fictional story guiding the reader through a criminal case (like an episode of “Law & Order”) to illustrate the “old-fashioned and inept coroner system which still manages to bumble along in certain parts of our country.” The original back cover has a note from the editor promising that the novel “takes us behind the scenes for an electrifying glimpse into some of the most insidious double-dealings and gutter morals of our day!”
Of course, this was all just Fawcett Gold Medal hype. Ozaki likely wrote an interesting crime novel, and the Fawcett marketing team sold it as an allegorical exposé of a small-town criminal justice system. As one who was always confused when a 1950’s crime novel cuts to a scene at a coroner’s inquest, I was pleased to get a better understanding of that system in the context of this fun crime novel.
The paperback opens with a girl kicking the ever-loving shit out of an on-duty bartender in Wisconsin. Bottles are smashed, mirrors are shattered, and Eddie the bartender’s ass is whooped. By the time the police arrive, the girl is gone and eyewitnesses can’t agree on her age, height, weight, or clothing - not unusual in police work. Soon thereafter, a college sorority girl named Shirley, who matches the assailant’s general description, is arrested by police nearby.
The problem is that Shirley - a preacher’s daughter from nearby Sheboygan - wasn’t the girl who trashed the other bar, yet she is arrested and thrust into the criminal justice system due to misinformation. There’s also a secondary plot about a prisoner murdered in the county lockup and the police’s attempt to cover it up with the help of a bent coroner. An honest, rookie deputy who suspects the truth is the only one trying to do the right thing.
Stillwell is a corrupt town, but not initially in the over-the-top way you normally see in mid-Century crime novels. For example, the Sheriff’s Benevolence Association accepts donations from the local taverns and brothels, and a portion of that money goes into the pockets of the department brass. The local judge does special extra-legal favors for his kitchen cabinet installer. The graft is insidious due to the lack of any governmental oversight, and that’s the problematic web the virginal but plucky Shirley finds herself trapped within. Of course, the rot inside the town’s justice system becomes materially worse as the book progresses until its hard to tell the difference between the police and the criminals.
Ozaki’s writing is a dispassionate third-person narration that changes perspective with every short chapter. The creates a lack of emotional urgency, but it also adds to the horror as the reader is immersed in a broken system with every crooked governmental character acting as a cog in large and rotten wheel. There’s not much mystery or action in the book, but the investigation of a small-town’s corruption was very compelling.
Overall, I really enjoyed “Inquest.” Its not a crime fiction masterpiece, but it was very readable, and the short chapters made it fly by. If you like stories about crooked towns, I’m confident that you’ll find this one riveting and worth your time.
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