James Arch Howard (1922-2000) was a World War 2 pilot who later earned a doctorate in psychology. He also wrote crime novels in his spare time under his own name as well as using the pseudonym of Laine Fischer. To the extent that he is remembered at all, he’s known for the Steve Ashe series of four mystery paperbacks between 1954 and 1957. His first stand-alone crime thriller was “Murder Takes a Wife,” a Pocket Books original from 1958 that’s available now as an affordable ebook.
Narrator Jeff Allen is a hit-man with a specialty of killing wives at the request of their husbands - usually to save the client’s some future alimony. He charges $10,000 per hit, plus expenses, and he’s very good at his job - never working more than five jobs per year. In the shocking opening scene, Jeff tosses a radio into a tub during his target’s bubble bath and then stages the scene to look like an accident. It’s the kind of brutal, Manhunt-esque opening that really grabs the reader by the throat and demands attention.
Like the Max Allan Collins character “Quarry,” Jeff is a smooth professional who gets close and ingratiates himself into the lives of the women he’s engaged to kill. Sometimes, he gets laid. Unlike Quarry, Jeff prefers to stage his murders as accidents. It’s also interesting to read the utter lack of compassion he feels for the women he kills - referring to them as tramps and leeches.
After finishing a brutal murder, Jeff relocates and falls in with a group of wealthy Fort Worth businessman with wives worth killing. Jeff gently nudges these country club types toward the idea of offing their wives to create some liberation from the bonds of marriage. The long sales cycle takes up most of the book, and the reader becomes immersed in a bit too much interpersonal drama among the couples. Using his cover as a wholesale pharmaceutical salesman, Jeff is very good at getting inside this group of friends, so the manipulation can begin.
This all culminates in some interesting murders, and a conclusion that I didn’t find particularly satisfying. However, the author is clearly a real talent, and I now want to explore his Steve Ashe series. Overall, I’m not upset to have read “Murder Takes a Wife,” but don’t confuse it with a masterpiece of the genre.
Special thanks to the excellent blog, The Rap Sheet, for providing biographical background on the author.
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