Robert Lloyd Fish (1912-1981) was an Edgar Award winner who authored over 30 crime novels under his own name as well as the fishy pseudonym of Robert L. Pike. His 1962 paperback, “Mute Witness,” was loosely adapted into the 1968 Steve McQueen film, “Bullitt.” I’ve never seen the film and probably won’t, but Hollywood’s endorsement of the paperback was enough for me to give it a shot.
I understand that the film is iconically set in San Francisco where cars shoot sparks as they leap over every hill, but “Mute Witness” is a car chase free mystery novel set in New York City. Specifically, the 52nd Precinct where NYPD Lieutenant Clancy (no first name is provided) is assigned to guard a witness who will soon be testifying before the State Crime Commission. The D.A. wants this witness alive when the Commission meets, and the suspicion is that the mafia wants the witness permanently muted. Clancy is an odd choice to project-manage this bodyguard assignment since he has historic problems with his department’s management that cost him a promotion and forced him to transfer and languish in the 52nd Precinct.
In this case, the protectee is Johnny Rossi, a high-level hoodlum running a regional crime racket who is prepared to spill his guts to the New York Crime Commission. Rossi is holed up inside a small uptown hotel and has agreed to have plain-clothes protection until its time for his testimony. That’s where Clancy comes in. You see, this is more than just an assignment for the talented cop - it’s his shot at redemption. Clancy doesn’t understand Rossi’s motivation to testify, nor is it his concern. As long as Rossi makes it to court in one piece, Clancy can declare victory and get on with his career.
It wouldn’t be much of a crime novel if the cops just played gin rummy with the hidden mobster for 180 pages. Of course, someone tries to kill Rossi while he’s being protected by Clancy’s guys. Clancy must determine the source of the compromise and identify the syndicate assassins hired to do the job. In that regard, “Mute Witness” is a real mystery with actual clues, red herrings, and a solvable solution.
The author creates a real sense of urgency because Clancy must solve this case before a certain deadline or everything goes to hell. An interesting element to to the plot is that in order to solve the case in a hurry, Clancy forgoes sleep. His deprivation creates physical exhaustion coupled with a decline in his mental faculties over the course of the paperback. We’ve all been there when we are working too hard without any sleep, but Fish does an outstanding job of making this exhaustion real for both Clancy and the reader.
Fish wrote a few short stories and three novels in his Lt. Clancy series - all using the Robert Pike pseudonym. The full paperbacks are:
- "Mute Witness" (1962)
- "The Quarry" (1964)
- "Police Blotter" (1965)
By the time, Hollywood made the movie “Bullitt” in 1968, Fish was finished with the Clancy character. My research indicates that Clancy and Bullitt have zero in common anyway. Hollywood just took the novel’s basic plot outline, added some car chases, and moved it to San Francisco with essentially a different lead character. After the film’s success, Fish wrote a series of novels using the Pike pseudonym starring a fast-driving, turtleneck-wearing, San Francisco detective named Reardon. “Bullitt” fans looking for more of the same should probably just check out the “Reardon” novels.
However, fans of smart NYPD police procedural mysteries in the vein of Ed McBain will absolutely love the intelligent twists and turns of “Mute Witness.” The paperback has been reprinted a ton under the original title and as a “Bullitt” movie tie-in while also remaining available as an affordable eBook.
Buy a copy of this book HERE.
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